Reflections from the centre: marketing in a pandemic

Throughout 2019, GCS ran the Year of Marketing, an ambitious initiative to help departments generate more effective marketing strategies and improve Government’s communication with the public.

Three campaign materials for COVID-19 awareness.
Example of government marketing campaign – winner of campaign of the month by September 2020.

As the government’s head of the marketing discipline, I remember talking extensively at the time about the challenges and opportunities government marketers face, for example around customer experience, trust and creativity.

The publication produced off the back of this initiative is worth revisiting – especially the paragraph below, which now seems so prescient…

Response to issues and emergencies – from pandemic disease to climate change – will become increasingly globalised, requiring communication solutions that affect behaviour change at every level – from individual to international.

Who knew coronavirus (COVID-19) was just around the corner and our lives were about to be changed for ever? And what impact has this had on marketing? In a way, everything has changed… and nothing.

The basic principles of marketing remain as true as they did then. Understanding the citizen – their attitudes, motivations and behaviours – still lies at the heart of the marketer’s skill. Using data and digital to do this, and then to connect with citizens in compelling, creative ways that elicit a tangible, measurable response is still vital.

What I think has changed in the last 18 months, however, is the sheer speed and scale we have had to move at. As the virus spread exponentially and new variants appeared, we were presented with fresh challenges on an almost daily basis.

I have led the marketing team responding to those challenges, working from the centre of government to fight the virus. Our aim has been to engage and guide the entire population via paid for advertising, as well as through partners, influencers and credible voices – at a national, regional and hyperlocal level.

We have become used to designing and delivering TV-led, fully integrated behaviour change campaigns from brief to broadcast in as little as 3 weeks, something that in a previous lifetime might have taken three times as long. We’ve also been responding to insight delivered in the morning, preparing organic digital assets and radio for play out that same day. Our digital campaigns are being reviewed and optimised on a daily basis.

We’ve learned how to deploy behavioural insights from scientists to improve our major campaigns, to AB test digital on a weekly basis and ruthlessly back the highest performing, ditching the rest. We’ve run street teams delivering personal advice to citizens about why downloading the app and getting vaccinated is so important.

And the result? We have demonstrable proof that the marketing and communications effort has saved lives. At Civil Service Live, we spoke about the breadth and scale of our campaigns (watch CS Live 2021 replay: “Behind the scenes: Large cross-government campaigns”). From the national to the hyperlocal, we have reached out to our audiences and tried to keep them safe.

At the heart of this huge effort has been a simple truth. If you pull together a team of marketers with the right skills and attitude (a dedication to public service and desire to make a difference), who focus relentlessly on the customer and who have been given the tools to do their job properly, anything and everything is possible.

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  • Cover image by GCS (1)