Maria Koutsoudakis, brand & marketing director at Vodafone UK tells Laura Swinton why digital inequality is such an important issue to the brand - and why they’re tackling it with their festive ad campaign
Digital inequality is an issue that has been growing in significance for years, as more crucial social processes and resources move online - but the pandemic has exposed not a gap but a vast chasm. In the UK alone 1.5m households do not have access to internet access, locking people out of job opportunities, vital services and social connections.
It’s an issue that telecomms brands have become increasingly proactive around - it’s an issue that they have the resources and infrastructure to at least begin to tackle. So much so that both Vodafone and O2 have built their festive campaigns around their digital inclusion initiatives. But while the role for telecommunications brands in this space is fairly obvious, it’s a question for all businesses and service providers as they rush to digitally transform - when everything is online, who is cut off?
For Vodafone, the festive period is a particularly effective time to raise awareness and encourage people to donate their old devices. Their research reveals a distaste for wastefulness among the public, as well as a re-calibration in terms of what’s really important. However, it was also key to present an optimistic and hopeful campaign, after two years of uncertainty and restriction due to the pandemic. And so Ogilvy London and Academy Films have created a playful campaign that encourages the public to embrace their inner Father Christmas.
LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Maria Koutsoudakis, brand and marketing director at Vodafone UK to find out more about the Christmas campaign and how Vodafone is addressing digital inequality.
LBB> What is digital poverty and what impact is it having on modern society?
Maria> Digital poverty refers to people who are living without devices, connectivity and the digital skills they need to be able to access work, education, healthcare and to keep in touch with family and friends. It is an issue that affects the most vulnerable people in our society, excluding them from essential support and opportunities. Ofcom reports that 1.5 million households, or approximately 6% of the population, do not have internet access.
The pandemic transformed the role of tech and digital connectivity and highlighted its value in all of our lives. Overnight, it became essential for accessing public services, working, education, applying for jobs, online shopping, healthcare and simply keeping in touch with family and friends. As a result, the consequences of living without digital poverty are huge.
LBB> Why is it such an important issue for Vodafone to engage with?
Maria> The pandemic played a huge role in highlighting the issue of the digital divide in the UK and there is evidence to show that the pandemic actually helped to close the gap – with the proportion of households without internet access falling from 11% to 6%. This is a really positive step but for those who remain offline – often the most financially vulnerable – the impact is, in fact, greater than ever.
At Vodafone we don’t think it is fair that some people are locked out from this digital world; no one in the UK today should lack the connectivity, devices or know-how to access digital services. What we do at Vodafone is connectivity, it’s where we can leverage our people, technology and scale to help others. And, beyond digital connectivity, it’s also about giving people the skills and confidence they need to make the most of the technologies we offer.
We know that digital poverty is an issue that isn’t going away – it still impacts far too many people in the UK. So, this Christmas, we wanted to formulate a campaign to inspire the nation to help those living in digital poverty by donating their old devices. We will add six months of free connectivity to devices donated to our Great British Tech Appeal and our charity partner Barnardo’s will redistribute them to disadvantaged children and families in the UK.
LBB> Can you tell me about what sort of conversations and activities are happening internally at Vodafone around this issue?
Maria> At Vodafone we’ve put tackling digital exclusion at the very heart of our business. In June, we announced our commitment to connect one million people living in digital poverty by the end of 2022, through our ‘everyone.connected’ initiative. Our announcement placed a new emphasis on tackling this really important issue and it is something that we are really proud of as a brand.
We have a range of projects and partnerships underway to help us reach this target of one million connections and tackle the issue of digital poverty in the UK. This includes programmes such as the Great British Tech Appeal and our ‘Buy One Give One’ initiative that donates free connectivity to a person in need every time someone signs up as a Vodafone Together customer. We have also launched ‘charities.connected’ which gives any charity in the UK the opportunity to apply for free connectivity to improve digital capabilities, extend its services or help the individuals and families it supports to get online.
You can find out more about our ‘everyone.connected’ initiatives on our website.
LBB> Vodafone's aim is to connect a million people without internet access by the end of 2022 - why did you set such a high goal and what sort of progress are you making on it?
Maria> When scoping out our target, the latest stat from ONS (March 2019) showed that 5.3 million people in the UK had either never used the internet or not used it in the last three months so we knew that this was a significant issue and one that we wanted to tackle head-on.
We wanted to be ambitious with our target and deliver genuine impact – hence our target of one million. We’re making good progress and we are confident that we’ll hit our target. More announcements to follow in the coming weeks on where we are up to and what comes next.
LBB> And why was it an issue you wanted to include in this year's Christmas campaign?
Maria> Our insight shows that Christmas is a time of year when people feel their most generous, and people are open to messages where they can get involved to make a difference versus just thinking about it. We wanted to make it easy for people to have an impact this Christmas. It’s not about asking them to buy something from us to unlock generosity, it’s about unlocking that generosity together to really make a difference - them through the donation of their old tech and us through connectivity. The digital poverty issue is not one simply of data, it’s equally about a lack of devices so we needed to address both sides.
LBB> About that campaign, it's launching in a really interesting context. We're still not 100% out of the woods with Covid, but families will hopefully be able to come together... on the other hand, there are questions about inflation, fuel poverty, empty shelves on supermarkets - what sort of contextual insights did you draw from when developing the brief and the campaign?
Maria> Our research revealed a few things:
We needed to have a message that was contextually relevant even if families were not allowed to get together at Christmas. From what we understood, the shutting of retail was unlikely, but the restriction of gatherings was possible. So we needed something that worked either way.
We understood that consumers are ready for something optimistic this Christmas after a very hard 18 months. They did not want to be reminded of the hardships of the pandemic and wanted for a moment to believe in something better - to forget for just a moment. This is why we played into Christmas in an overt and optimistic way.
We uncovered there was a post-pandemic appetite for less excess and waste and focus on the things that really matter. So we needed to show a generous Christmas, but not an over the top and potentially wasteful one.
LBB> There's also something both charming and empowering about turning everyone into Santa Claus - what was it about the idea that really worked for your business objectives as well as that digital poverty initiative?
Maria> Our ambition was to unlock the generosity within our customers and make this about them and us working together, rather than making it all about us. The reflection of Santa was a great way for us to make them the heroes. We enabled their in-built generosity and desire to help, particularly at Christmas. It also allowed us to get the traditional Christmas icons into the creative. Digital poverty is about connectivity and devices. We have the network capability, and lots of consumers have old devices sitting in a draw – so connecting these two things allows us to tackle both sides of the issue.
LBB> And what advice would you have for marketers that haven't really started to engage with the issue yet?
Maria> Every brand has to think about where it can make a difference in society, that is authentically linked to the business it’s in. For me being authentic to what we do, and how what we do can help others is where the sweet spot is.