As part of the WARC x Ogilvy Image to Impact report, Maria Koutsodakis – Brand and Marketing Director at Vodafone UK – spoke about navigating media fragmentation, balancing the art and science of marketing, and why authentic purpose makes an impact.

Maria Koutsodakis

Maria Koutsodakis, Brand and Marketing Director, Vodafone UK

If we look at how marketing has changed over the past 10 years, what are the biggest shifts that you have seen personally in that time?

I would say the fragmentation of marketing. When I was working on a global hair care brand back in 2005, the marketing plan was simple. We promoted the brand four times a year – once without a promotion, three times with a promotion. It was always a 3-for-2 offer and we did TV, OOH, radio and print. And that was it. It was a bit more of a cut and paste four times a year. It was a pretty predictable model and it worked really well. Now it's just fragmentation.

There are still mass-reaching mediums but even your best is only going to get to half of your audience, if you think of TV. Then the rest is just a really long tail of equally important – but equally short in terms of reach – executions. The ability to cut and paste the same execution across various platforms has gone. You've really got to think about how each platform is consumed in such a unique way, you have to make for-purpose creative. Holistic marketing has taken on a whole new meaning.

It's fragmentation of creative, fragmentation of media and then on the other side, it's gone from an art to very much more of a science with the breadth of data. There wasn't even MMM when I started, so we had no idea what was working. If the campaign worked, the campaign worked and you were never really that clear on the elements that worked. Now it's a lot more scientific.

Today we use a lot of marketing mix modelling, real-time data and uplift studies to determine what is working and not working. However, it's based on a world and behaviour that has dramatically shifted thanks to COVID, so it's a history that – in terms of shopping behaviour and consumption behaviour – was pretty steady before. Things would change, but not dramatically. Now you've had this massive shift. It's going to be very interesting to see the impact of this year versus last year, versus the year before. We have to re-establish a norm now and I think things will stabilise, hopefully.

So, it's data, fragmentation of media and fragmentation of creative that have been the biggest shifts for me.

Have these shifts changed the way you communicate with customers at a brand strategy level in terms of media, creative and positioning around the brand?

Absolutely. We think much more carefully about our spend across brand love, propositions, and demand generation: how these messages collectively build the brand, how much money we spend across each one of these layers across a quarter, across the year.

More so than ever, we think about the context in which our message lands, especially when it comes to more purpose [or] brand love communication. You need to ensure it's an appropriate environment and customers are contextually relevant to receive that message so that it lands well. It’s all part of the fragmentation and looking for that stronger connection of what we say and where we say it.

Is there a difference between brands creating an impact and brands being purposeful? And if so, what does impact mean?

If you're going to do authentic purpose, and you focus on making a true difference, you will make an impact. That's the important thing – you have a measurable, meaningful contribution.

Coming out of COVID, we realised it's about the ‘here and now’, and the problem we can solve and the measurable impact we can make. With Everyone Connected, it's a very clear pledge. We're going to connect a million disconnected people. And we have an active measurement on our website where you can track us against that and hold us accountable against that.

We also do it with our customers so that there's a real partnership versus no participation from customers. They don't need to do anything more than be a Vodafone Together customer (which means get their mobile & broadband from us). We will give connectivity through our Buy One Give One promise. This extends to our tech appeal - if customers donate their tech, we will add connectivity. If customers nominate their charity, we will help connect them. So, it's not a financial cost for our customers. There's no penalty or ask, but there is a direct consequence of one of their actions.

It's very much a partnership that way, which was really important for us. I think if it's too passive, I don't think consumers realise the benefit of their choices. So, it's more active, but it's accountable and it's today, it's in the here and in the now, for me and for my community.

Making it local was also very important. The climate is a big global issue but digital poverty is a UK issue right here, right now. That also came through in our research.

So, it's got to be present. It's got to be tangible because otherwise it's too easy to be unaccountable. How much work do you think there is for other brands to do to become authentic?

I think there's a lot for all of us to do, and keep doing, so these things move from something we do to something we fundamentally believe in. This is how we try to operate: we want this to be embedded in the way we work, not a choice but a ‘must do’, but we need to keep working at it till it becomes second nature.

Only time will tell whether it pays out that we've been authentic in our execution. This Christmas when we did our Everyone Connected campaign it was prioritised across all our touchpoints: You walk into our store and on our main round table, it says donate your old phone. You go to our window and donate your old phone to help digital connectivity this year. Every retail staff member has challenged every customer, every time, to talk about phone donation.

We've got active participation in the business with senior management on LinkedIn showing they're doing phone donations. We're doing phone donations and we've got a raft of celebrities that are helping us with this, showing great behaviour that can help. Again, it's the partnership aspect. You donate your phone, we donate the connectivity and, together, we give the gift of connection.

For me, it's important that brands choose one or two things they truly believe in (budget will always be a factor) and they are transparent and accountable. No matter which way you poke at them, you realise this truly means something to them. And we've tried to do that.

There are probably still opportunities for us to keep going, making the campaign and movement stronger, but we keep going at it from the point that this is not a TV campaign, it is a movement that Vodafone believes in. We keep building on that movement. I think that's important to your point. That's impact because we have to help a million people, otherwise we haven't done our job. It's not about emotional connection or being a feel-good brand. That's great but it's the by-product of actually making a difference.

How easy has it been to measure this impact and what are the challenges?

To be accountable you have to have a clear set of KPIs that helps you understand if you are making a difference. We have a raft of KPIs we look at [for] the purpose programme itself and how we are tracking. In our case, our journey to 1m consumers helped. The effects on the brand; How many people are aware of everyone.connected? How do they feel about the brand versus those who are aware?

We also then look at the impact this has on our employees and franchise partners’ internal pride scores for working with Vodafone. There is no silver bullet but the impact of what you have on the community, on the brand, the business and the team is definitely measurable.

When talking about a benchmark, it is always how well you did last year versus an internal one? It's not necessarily a cross-category, cross-industry benchmark. Is that something you've experienced or did you benchmark yourself against last year?

COVID has accelerated our focus on purpose and in some ways clarified the programmes we want to support. I would say within 2020 we established our benchmarks, and now we are comparing against ourselves. This Christmas we found ourselves doing some similar programmes to some of our competitors, so getting that external competitor benchmark became easier.

For me, the purpose agenda of a brand is not really a comparative one as it has to work for your brand, your people, and your customers for it to really make a difference. It's not just about creating a new product or campaign, it's about fundamentally embedding it in the business as a cause or way of working. For this reason I feel our best benchmarks are our own. Start with: does my customer care about the cause? Can we make a real difference? And then benchmark yourself from there.

How does your approach or philosophy change when it comes to impact and how do you arrive at that over time? It seems that your philosophy is rooted in your brand values and heritage and you tap straight back into that. Is that fair to say?

Absolutely 100%. We even take that onto sponsorship. We sponsored the British & Irish Lions last year and when it was clear that fans couldn't go, I said to the team we've got to make sure that the Lions are grateful that they have Vodafone as a lead sponsor this year, not a consumable brand.

We asked ourselves how we could use our technology, and the power of technology, to make a difference to this tour in an authentic way. Because that's what we do, we connect, and this year the fans needed to connect to the tour they could not go on. So, how do you really embrace that compared to non-connectivity brands that would have done an excellent in-stadium execution, but could not lean into the problem of a tour without fans.

We don’t get involved unless we can add value or tech can add value. We're not in it for a badging exercise. That's in anything we do, because people see straight through anything that's just one ad campaign-deep. We really think about tech, our area of expertise, what we bring that's different and build on our purpose. Our purpose is broad so it's not a narrowing thought.

With 5G, you can transfer touch and with that we did the 8,000 Mile Autograph – an instant autograph for a fan that couldn't be with a Lions player. We did a duet with Lewis Hamilton, that showed how you can learn to play the piano when you're distanced from someone and that instantaneous movement of touch is big. We're constantly looking for use cases where we show the benefit of haptic. There are amazing applications that are truly life-changing so we tend to lean into those stories.

To what extent is your brand a companion brand in your customers' lives and should brands be companion brands?

I think it varies. We're an enablement brand, that's how we refer to it. We enable. It's not what we do, it's what we enable. Ultimately, the sexier thing is the phone or the content you watch on TV. You don't think of the juice that's making that happen but without our juice, none of that stuff happens. But we appreciate that those things are the things that, ultimately, customers want to experience. They don't want to experience the network in isolation. They want to experience the output of the network.

We're very clear we're the enablement and we're also very clear that at the end of the day, what that tech does, makes a human a hero, not [the brand] a hero. So, I think it's a good humble mindset. What do we enable? What can we do better? What can we help people do? It's the right sort of service mentality for, ultimately, a service brand as well.

How do you think the idea of brands – generally, rather creating an impact – is going to change in the next 10 years or so?

I think there's going to be a swing on a bandwagon, that everyone's saying the same thing, regardless of what category they come from. And then I'm hoping there'll be a swing back to get back in your lane. Think about the causes that the world has, and the things you should take care of to fix because your brand has a right to play in that cause, or because your category is part of the issue.

Every business will have to think about its impact on the environment and how to neutralise it. I believe in 10 years time this will no longer be a differentiator. For me, brands that differentiate on purpose in 10 years time will be sustainable, however they will be solving and improving on another vector as well for that differentiation and cut through.

How important is brand distinctiveness versus difference and when it comes to impact, is it veering more towards the different side because you are staying true to your core?

It's both, you need to be different to stand apart from competition, but you need to be distinctive to cut through. Ultimately impact comes from fame which is being known for your cause more than competition. That would say distinctiveness might have the edge. So it's how you do what you do, how committed you are to it to create cut through, and how we keep evolving the idea to keep it fresh and relevant.

We're two years into the digital disconnect journey now and we will continue to focus on that because we do believe it's an issue and it's ours to solve, but it's also ours to be associated with and you've got to do both. So, that's where we see ourselves, at least for the foreseeable future. Not foregoing the right behaviours from the planet and sustainability point of view.