Why Vodafone opted for purpose over sentiment this Christmas

A Q&A with Maria Koutsoudakis, head of brand at Vodafone UK, who tells Campaign why the telecoms giant seized the Christmas moment to ask people to donate their devices to the less fortunate.

Vodafone: 'Give the gift of connection' Christmas ad asks people to donate old devices to those in need
Vodafone: 'Give the gift of connection' Christmas ad asks people to donate old devices to those in need

This month saw Vodafone launch its Christmas campaign. Rather than opting for the Christmas ad tropes and saccharine storytelling aimed at driving consumerism, the telecoms giant decided to instead ask people to donate their devices to the less fortunate.

Campaign spoke to head of brand Maria Koutsoudakis about why it adopted this approach, how it balances commercial imperative with purpose and the responsibilities that a brand has to promote responsible digital behaviour. 

Campaign: What made you decide to go not just for a narrative around giving, but a strategy that asks people to make gifts of their old tech – a gesture Vodafone will respond to in kind?

Our insight shows that Christmas is a time of year when people feel their most generous, and people are open to messages where they can get involved to make a difference versus just thinking about it.

We wanted to make it easy for people to have an impact this Christmas. It's not about asking them to buy something from us to unlock generosity, it's about unlocking our generosity together to really make a difference – them through the donation of their old tech and us through connectivity. The digital poverty issue is not one simply of data, it's equally about a lack of devices so we needed to address both sides.

Were there other ideas for your Christmas campaign? Perhaps more traditional heart-string-pulling executions? Or was strategy largely decided by your "everyone.connected" initiative?

Absolutely. We considered replicating the success of our campaign last year by talking about our network and how 5G has the power to help people connect. However, in discussion and on reflection we felt focusing on action versus just pure emotion was more important to us. Earlier this year we made a very public commitment to help connect one million people with the help of the UK public and our customers. When weighing up the options we felt this was the right time to keep driving that message.

While there's an altruism to the campaign, there's a commercial imperative to it too. Do you think it's a challenge to balance the two?

Ultimately, we all know we buy from companies whose products we like, values we share and whose brand experience resonates with us. This consumer relationship is driven far more by emotional connections than rational connections. We ensure we have the right balance across any marketing calendar of purpose, propositions and promotions, and we try and ensure we drive the purpose elements at moments when we know the customer is most open to hearing them. We also ensure that there is contextual relevance for us launching campaigns at that time.

What's been the reaction to the ad so far?

Very positive; both internally and with our key stakeholders externally. The advert signals our long-term commitment to this cause and that we are committed to delivering on our promise to help tackle digital exclusion and to connect one million people living in digital poverty by the end of 2022. Across the marketing industry, it has been appreciated as a very different strategy at a time when all brands seem to be converging.

Your creative agencies span Ogilvy, focused on UK, and start-up New Commercial Arts, which works on global creative strategy. How do the two align and what can we expect to see coming from NCA in the future?

Within the UK we always ensure our executions align to the global creative platform of "Together we can", which in turn aligns with our ambition to be a more purpose-driven brand. Within this strategic direction and creative platform, we have the freedom to tell the stories that resonate most with our customers. This approach allows for global perspectives to land with local relevancy and meaning, which gives them stronger engagement.

"Give the gift of connection" is a pretty stark representation of "Together we can" – your global brand positioning created in cahoots with NCA. What does the latter mean and how will we continue to see it manifest in upcoming campaigns?

"Together we can" represents the combination of the human spirit that exists within our customers to progress and improve their world and the world around them and the Vodafone innovation that drives our product and proposition development to make a meaningful difference to the world. Our "The gift of connection" campaign is exactly that – our customers' desire to be generous at Christmas, and with our everyone.connected programme, we can make a difference together.

Technology is clearly an enabler and a force for good – its role to connect people and continue their livelihoods during the pandemic is an emphatic case in point. But it can also have less salubrious connotations – from making people withdraw into their screens, fuelling misinformation on social media, etc. Do you think a brand like Vodafone has a duty to foster responsible digital behaviour? Is this something you build into your messaging?

At Vodafone this is not something we just put into our messaging, it's something we put into our behaviours and values of our brand. We support safe online practices through well-established initiatives such as our Digital Parenting programme that will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary in January 2022. Like many brands we are constantly monitoring the environments and channels our advertising appears on to ensure they represent the values of the brand and that they are safe and fair.

We do not tolerate abusive and destructive behaviour on our social media channels, and we behave digitally in a way that we believe focuses on the positives and just not the negatives. We are also not afraid to support opportunities when the right action is to put devices down. We recently launched our Vodafone Pro Broadband, which is the only broadband to have Alexa built in. It features an exclusive 'dinner time' skill which allows families to turn off the Wi-Fi for 30 minutes using a simple voice command fostering non-digital connections.

Can you talk about your wider strategy around connecting one million people to the internet by the end of 2022 and how the Xmas ad will help achieve this goal?

At Vodafone we've put tackling digital exclusion at the very heart of our business. In June, we announced our commitment to connect one million people living in digital poverty by the end of 2022 through our everyone.connected initiative. This announcement placed a new emphasis on helping people and tackling an important issue, so it is something that we are proud of as a brand.

This Christmas we wanted to come up with a campaign that inspires the nation to help those living in digital poverty and help us reach our one million target by encouraging the public to donate their old devices via our Great British Tech Appeal. We will add six months of free connectivity to devices donated, with our charity partner Barnardo's redistributing them to disadvantaged children and families in the UK. We think the campaign really celebrates the joy of giving at Christmas.

We have a range of other projects and partnerships under way to help us reach our target and tackle the issue of digital poverty in the UK. This includes our "Buy one give one" initiative that donates free connectivity to a person in need every time someone signs up as a Vodafone Together customer. We have also launched charities.connected, which gives any charity in the UK the opportunity to apply for free connectivity to improve digital capabilities, extend its services or help the individuals and families it supports to get online. You can find out more about our everyone.connected initiatives on our website.

Can you share any of your upcoming plans?

We are busy planning our 2022 calendar, so watch this space. You can expect more on our everyone.connected programme, and a focus on propositions that build around customers' needs and the positive role that tech can play in everyday life.

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