What the BBC taught me about marketing

What the BBC taught me about marketing

A couple of weeks ago the BBC was in the news, as the public consultation on the Charter Review closed. The organisation wasn’t just telling the news; it was making the news.

Now I’m a big fan of the BBC, what it stands for and what it does. I’m a regular user of its website, its radio stations and its television channels, so I was watching, listening to and reading about it. What that taught me, or in one case reminded me of, was a number of important marketing lessons.

Lesson 1: Everyone has multiple personalities
‘The’ story around the BBC last week wasn’t actually the Charter Review. It was Nadiya’s triumph on The Great British Bake Off. I was one of the mere 13 million or so watching the final and like so many of us was delighted to see her win. However, it was in the ensuing ‘post-match’ interviews that the first marketing lesson emerged.

In one interview in The Times, she said: “I’m a mishmash of everything – I’m a Muslim, I’m British, I’m Bangladeshi, I’m a mother, a wife. All of those make me what I am.” That’s even before you consider that’s she an outstanding baker, a TV star, a future cookbook writer and a student (she’s currently studying at the Open University).

It was a very clear expression of the fact that it can be too easy for us marketers to pigeonhole people, either seeing them solely as ‘consumers’ or else putting them into a single category that’s relevant to our product or service. Everybody has multiple personalities, which change according to situation, who is around and the personal and social needs of those involved. The notion of need states – “The ‘me’ that I am when…” – has been around for a long time but can easily be forgotten or ignored.

Lesson 2: Ask the right question
Talk of the number of viewers and the ratings leads to the second lesson. It came from a discussion about the future of the BBC, in which the presenter asked one panellist: “Should the BBC be chasing ratings?”

What struck me was how leading the question was: whether you answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’, you have accepted that chasing ratings is what viewing is all about. It’s not quite as bad as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” but it’s heading in that direction.

The presenter could have asked (equally leading though it would have been): “Should the BBC stop making popular programmes?”

Interestingly, the panellist brought the discussion back to another old BBC adage – namely that the BBC’s role had been described as, “making the good, popular and making the popular, good”.

Another recent, political example of question setting is the recommended change to the forthcoming referendum on membership of the EU. The Electoral Commission made the following announcement following its deliberations:

“The Electoral Commission has today given its statutory advice to Parliament on the proposed referendum question in the European Union Referendum Bill 2015-16, which has its next parliamentary stage (Report) on 7 September.
The question currently in the Bill and that was tested by the Commission was: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’ The responses would be ‘Yes’ / ‘No’.
Following its assessment process, the Commission has recommended that the question should be amended to: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ The responses would be ‘Remain a member of the European Union’ / ‘Leave the European Union’.

The Commission wrote to the Government and issued a briefing to all MPs recommending that the change should be made at the Report stage of the Bill on 7th September 2015.

Chair of the Electoral Commission Jenny Watson said, “Any referendum question must be as clear as possible so that voters understand the important choice they are being asked to make. We have tested the proposed question with voters and received views from potential campaigners, academics and plain language experts. Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill, some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias. The alternative question we have recommended addresses this.”’

The feeling was that the initial proposal was unfair, in which voters were to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’. It would allow the campaign to remain in the EU to brand itself as the more positive, ‘yes’ camp.

The lesson from both examples is that you need to consider very carefully how you ask questions. It is important to consider how you frame your questions, and the biases you can unwittingly (or indeed wittingly) build into them.

Lesson 3: Being single-minded can make you narrow-minded
For me, this was the most important lesson. It came to me during the course of that same discussion about the future remit of the BBC. A member of the panel raised the subject of the original mission: “To enrich people's lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.”

He used it to argue that perhaps it was time for the BBC to focus on just one thing. I disagreed, listening in my car, as did the other members of the studio panel. The ‘multiplicity’ at the heart of this mission is both a key strength and what helps the BBC maintain its breadth of appeal.

For me, this discussion wasn’t just an argument about creative direction; it was a powerful marketing lesson. While much ‘traditional’ marketing thinking is still focused on the notion of a single element that differentiates brands, the BBC is a great example of a brand that has depth because it isn’t too narrowly focused.

Brands should be like the BBC, needing to work across categories, cultures and countries. To do so, they need to manage multiplicity. It reminded me that sometimes being single-minded can be narrow-minded.

Three lessons in one week. Thank you, BBC – long may you inform, educate and entertain.

Giles Lury is executive chairman of The Value Engineers. Read more from him here.