CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/DEBORAH MAXWELL - The woman who will keep the Post Office in use. Deborah Maxwell is aiming to make up for ten years of wasted time

It is ten years since the Post Office advertised on television. And

even then, the commercials were re-runs of two year-old spots.



Deborah Maxwell, the company's head of brand marketing, is in a hurry to

put right this decade of neglect. Within a year of joining the company,

Maxwell has secured a pounds 15 million marketing budget - a pounds 9

million increase on previous years - and appointed Publicis to

reposition the brand.



'Publicis was the one agency that pushed us beyond the comfort zone,'

she says. 'It didn't just suggest we present a collective happy face.

People are usually afraid of rocking the boat, but Publicis wanted to

change things and it made us look professional.'



It is not an easy task, as Maxwell, who joined after one year at the

Woolwich and seven years at the AA, is the first to admit. 'We are all

things to all men, and different audiences want different things. That

makes it difficult.'



Publicis, Maxwell says, has come up with a catch-all endline that will

be revealed when the new campaign goes on air in the second week of

June.



Advertising will be 'product-based but brand-led' and will focus on a

'market-grabbing promotion'.



Internally, the Post Office has come a long way in the past ten

years.



It offers travel insurance, currency exchange, cashpoints (in

conjunction with Alliance & Leicester) and online options. Yet, despite

the changes, your average pensioner still feels at home every time they

pop along to collect their benefits.



In truth, the advances have been a nod to changes rather than a Post

Office counter revolution.



Maxwell's long-term role is to make sure that, once the Government

starts paying benefits directly into recipients' bank accounts in 2003,

people still find a reason to go to the Post Office.



Picking up a driving licence application or sending the odd parcel will

not be enough to keep the 18,000 branches in business, and the existing

level of 28 million customers a week will be hard to sustain. In fact,

unless drastic action is taken, Maxwell expects the number of customers

to drop by 40 per cent overnight.



Universal Bank, a basic banking offering which is being developed with

the Government and banking partners, should help to keep customers

coming in. The final name for the bank is expected to be the Post Office

Card Account, which should also help to raise awareness of the overall

brand.



'Our problem is that we have never behaved like a brand; we've behaved

like a government institution,' Maxwell says. 'We've always under-rated

ourselves.'



Her vision for the Post Office is ambitious - she wants to be up there

with Tesco as one of the UK's top ten brands within five years - but

with spontaneous awareness of the Post Office at just 3 per cent, she

has a long way to go.



'We are taken for granted,' Maxwell adds, 'but we are at the heart of

the community and people would be lost without us. I always say that we

are like the pavement - you don't really notice it's there but if it

disappeared, it would be unpleasant. We have to make people remember we

are there and make them think again.'



The recent rebranding of the Post Office's parent company as Consignia

will, she is convinced, help her goal in the long term.



Before the move, there were two operations using the name Post Office,

but now the situation is much clearer: Consignia is one big corporation

with three divisions - Parcelforce, Royal Mail and Post Office

counters.



'It's fabulous for us,' Maxwell says. 'Now there is only one consumer

brand called the Post Office.'



However, that one brand is still hard to govern when many of your

branches are stuck at the back of convenience stores. Maxwell wants to

build on the trust that consumers have in the Post Office, which handles

pounds 140 billion of their cash every year.



'Banks and travel agents are closing,' she points out, 'so people will

trust us to carry on with those services.' But Post Offices are also

closing - at what she calls the 'normal attrition rate' of 200 branches

a year.



The closures are usually due to a postmaster or postmistress retiring

and not being able to find anyone to carry on the business.



It is just this sort of sleepy non-image that the Post Office needs to

confront with its advertising. Even the dynamic Maxwell has to be

realistic about the speed at which she can change things. 'This is our

warm-up year,' she says, 'but new and different things are coming.'



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