Data and Ducks: Behind HMRC’s award-winning Self Assessment campaign

Blog post by Joanna Singer

Wednesday 28 November 2018

HMRC's Self Assessment campaign won the Platinum award at October's Public Service Communications Excellence Awards. Joanna Singer, Head of Campaigns at HMRC, explains why the campaign was so successful.

Self Assessment Campaign Ducks image

At Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, we pride ourselves on putting customers at the heart of everything we do, which I’m proud to say is reflected in our data and insight driven communication campaigns.

This approach certainly paid off with our 2018 Self Assessment (SA) campaign, with a record breaking 94% of customers filing by the deadline, helping the business to generate £30 billion for the UK economy.

So, how did our 2018 campaign deliver these record-breaking results?

Our annual Self Assessment campaign helps 11 million customers across the UK to do their tax return on time and avoid penalties. Our campaign has a particular focus on customers who are unrepresented by tax agents and complete their return themselves. Our communications help unrepresented customers to get their return right first time and file by the deadline.

This year we faced a challenge. We achieved record breaking results in 2017 with 93% of our customers filing by the deadline. How could we better these results?

The answer: data and ducks.


The key to the 2018 SA campaign success was our continuous commitment to using data driven insights, collated from previous campaigns and ongoing behavioural insights trials.

We kick started our campaign across multiple low costs channels, building on successful news hooks and communication products from previous campaigns to help raise awareness of the January deadline. In parallel we rolled out additional ‘How to’ help videos on Youtube based on customer feedback and began our direct communications across the country.

Our direct comms (SMS, mail and email) played a really important role in helping customers meet the deadline. Working with our behavioural insights team, we targeted customers most likely to miss the deadline, sending them the optimal number of reminders based on previous trials. As a result, significantly more customers in these groups filed on time.

But what about the ducks?


For the last few years our advertising demonstrated the positive feeling customers felt after doing their return. Research showed that people experienced many emotions, from joy to satisfaction, from celebration to a glass of wine or chocolate as a reward. We demonstrated these emotions through a creative featuring serene, floating business professionals, post-filing. However, after several years of running the campaign, our ongoing tracking research started to show signs of creative wear out and we knew we had to act upon this before it started to impact filing rates.

Going against accepted industry practice of only using ‘positive insights’ to influence behaviour, we used ducks to personify the negative ‘niggling’ feeling customers said they felt when putting off doing their return. As well as using images of ducks, the adverts carried messages such as “don’t let the thought of your tax return peck away at you” and “whatever you do don’t duck it” to add charm and engagement and really drive home the message.

Our bold creative approach proved cost effective. Comparing our results with the launch of our Inner Peace campaign, our tracking research showed that the ducks delivered similar levels of awareness and recognition as Inner Peace, despite a 46% reduction in media spend. As a ratio, this equated to 69% awareness for every £1 million spent on the ducks compared to 29% for Inner Peace.

The use of the ducks also helped to positively boost the campaign and resulted in 98% positive press coverage- most of which referred to HMRC going quackers!

Our 2019 campaign will shortly be underway, so keep an eye out for some ducks to make you smile on the cold winter nights. Or if you still have your Self Assessment return to complete this year – don’t duck it!

UPDATE: The Self Assessment campaign team will be running a Comms Exchange on the Self Assessment campaign on 25 January 2019. Book your ticket here.