James Hurman examines the 2023 WARC Awards for Effectiveness Channel Pioneer category Silver winner, ‘Phone It In’ for Skinny by Colenso BBDO Auckland, in the fifth installment of his EFF BOMB series.

Sometime late in 2022, I had lunch with Ally Young, the CMO of a low-cost telco here in New Zealand. At least I think she was the CMO. Her organisation had gone agile and so it was unclear what her job title or responsibilities were. Let’s call her High Elf Chapter Wizard and know that she was in charge of marketing the Skinny Mobile brand.

Anyway, while we were lunching Ally told me two very cool things.

One was the idea that underpinned her brand’s long-term strategy.

Skinny Mobile, as the name suggests, is the ‘lean’ option for Kiwi mobile phone users. There are no stores. The customer service is a faqbot. The brand has one colour.

Their key redeeming feature is that they use the very-good-actually network of New Zealand’s big incumbent telco… they’re just not allowed to tell anyone that.

That particular combination of features and benefits meant that they’d begun as a supermagnet for the country’s broke Gen Z’s when they launched in 2012, and then run out of customers by 2017.

Poor consideration from the rest of the market had made attempts to evolve into a mass-market brand a failure. For anyone 14 or older, it was a little embarrassing to be with Skinny.

Then they started playing a trick.

They started making ‘cheap’ appear clever, funny and desirable.

They made a campaign where they found ordinary New Zealanders with names like Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Michael Jordan and Sarah Jessica Parker and featured them in ads that promised “Skinny will do anything to keep prices low and customers happy, by not wasting money on big athlete endorsements, like the more expensive Michael Jordan, or very famous actors, like the other Clint Eastwood.”

That campaign grew the stagnant customer base by 12%.

Then they returned the next year with a campaign that made good on one of marketing’s most dried-up old factoids: that people trust recommendations from friends much more than they trust ads.

Rather than some futile attempt to bribe their customers into recommending Skinny to their friends, they went straight to mathematics.

Many of those who didn’t consider Skinny said it’s because they ‘didn’t know anyone who was on Skinny’. But – given Skinny had over 200,000 customers, and New Zealand doesn’t have many more people than that, the chances were that they did in fact know someone who was on Skinny. Probably more than one.

So they cast Skinny customers from all around the country and made them stars of their own campaigns, shooting identical spokesperson campaigns, with identical 30-second TV ads, identical billboards, bus shelter ads, radio spots, and social films. Every campaign was identical to the one before it, except it featured a different happy Skinny customer with the same dialogue, same settings, same looks to camera, and the same jokes.

It was a whole new way of advertising. They called it Friendvertising. And here it is:

That campaign grew the customer base another 12%, but what it also did was reduce churn from 50% per annum to 31% per annum. A huge decrease as the brand became less embarrassing to be with.

Which brings me back to my lunch with the CMO and what she told me.

She explained the internal mantra for Skinny. It was this. They spent their days ‘finding the hacks that saved customers money’.

Those hacks were the product and CX innovations that made Skinny cheaper. But they were also the way they approached advertising the brand. Can’t afford celebrities? Find ordinary, cheap, people with the same names. Can’t afford customer service, a second brand colour, or other accoutrements of desirability? Use your own customers to prove that in fact loads of people think Skinny’s cool.

“Find the hacks that save customers money” is a great reframe. It positions affordability as smart and covetable. That’s hard to do. And Skinny did it.

It’s also a platform that continues to give way to great work.

So, onto the second cool thing Ally told me.

It was about the campaign they’d just done. The third in the series.

It was called ‘Phone It In’. The idea was to write radio scripts advertising Skinny, then print the scripts out on outdoor posters and invite passers-by to call a number and read out the script for a chance to be featured as an actual Skinny radio ad.

The hack? Save on voiceover artist fees by getting customers to read the ads out themselves.

Like the other campaigns, I can’t do it justice in words. Watch this:

It’s properly funny, right? It’s also really smart. It encourages engagement with the brand in a highly novel way. It advances the already very clever brand platform. And it led to outstanding brand and business growth.

Those earlier campaigns had increased brand consideration 6 points and grown customer numbers an average of 12% year on year for the past three years.

Phone It In increased brand consideration another 6 points in one go, and customer acquisition leapt 34% year on year.

That was what won the campaign gold at the New Zealand Effies late last year.

It used creativity to massively amplify the effect of their USD ~$300K campaign.

It used broad-reach media to target all-category buyers and drive penetration.

It used Skinny’s paltry distinctive assets (that one colour) in an arresting way.

It emotionalized the most rational message of all – ‘we cost less’.

And it increased Skinny’s creative commitment by finding a brilliant new way to build on the ‘hacks’ platform.

But none of those are the cool thing I keep not telling you about.

The cool thing Ally told me was about who’d recorded the ads.

Of course, they could tell which telco the callers were with.

Many of those who read out Skinny’s radio ads were Skinny’s customers. Tick.

But a full 40% of the recordings were made by customers of competing telcos.

Yep. They got their competitors’ customers, en masse, to record their ads. For free.

It’s one of the greatest statistics I’ve ever read in an effectiveness paper.

If you can get your competitors’ customers to make the ads that win you a gold Effie then you can go home, put your feet up, and phone it in.

Read the full effectiveness paper on WARC here.

Learn about the Master of Advertising Effectiveness here.

About James Hurman

James is an advertising effectiveness expert from New Zealand. He’s the programme director of the Master of Advertising Effectiveness, in partnership with WARC. He’s also the author of effectiveness books The Case for Creativity and Future Demand, and the author of major effectiveness studies The Effectiveness Code and The B2B Effectiveness Code. He’s a co-founder of brand tracking SAAS martech start-up Tracksuit, and the founding partner at New Zealand innovation studio Previously Unavailable. James spent his advertising career as a strategic planner, and was named the world’s #1 planning director in 2013.

About Eff Bomb

Eff Bomb is a WARC column about the world’s most effective advertising campaigns. Each issue, James Hurman takes apart a recent effectiveness award winner and shows how it put the principles of effectiveness together to create significant brand and business growth.