Will Harrison, AA: Tukker, drive-in cinemas and marketing in crazy times

The AA's head of brand marketing explains the company's strategy to establish its brand positioning during COVID and beyond.

William Harrison, AA

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the AA and your marketing strategy?

It’s been a crazy time for everyone really, hasn’t it? I actually started in this role as head of brand marketing in March 2020 so I literally stepped into the role as COVID was breaking and lockdown happened.  

I had to work out quite quickly our brand strategy and brand story at this unique time, and ensure everything laddered up to the positioning that we wanted to have during COVID and beyond. I knew that our brand was more important than ever at a time when the whole UK, as well as UK drivers, needed our support.

There were various initiatives we ran, such as the NHS free breakdown scheme and helping ambulance services across the country. So there was practical help that we offered. But then it was a case, from a marketing point of view, of just making sure that everyone was aware of us as a brand and the help that we were offering – particularly making sure that our leadership credentials were at the fore, that people were aware of the number of skilled patrols we have out on the roads to help people, for example.

And then the broader thought, really, from a positioning point of view, beyond #ProudToKeepBritainMoving, was around the AA enabling the freedom of driving when lockdown was lifted. That’s something that we talked about quite a lot in those early weeks and obviously thinking about the short term of lockdown and the effect that would have on people physically and emotionally. We knew that, as people, at some point, would come out of lockdown, there would be a natural desire for the need for freedom and that need to get back on the road and to do that in a safe and secure way with the confidence of a trusted brand like the AA behind them.  

And then the freedom of driving really laddered into not just the advertising campaign – ‘that feeling’ with Tukker – but also activations such as the drive-in cinemas, which were a really natural fit for us as a brand regardless.

What marketing channels have been working best for the AA and how has that changed since the pandemic began?

With COVID hitting I saw a big opportunity to start to improve our social media content. And an emphasis on that being a pretty critical channel for us at a time when loads of people are checking their phones for the news. Mobile is so integral in our lives now that I think social media only becomes more and more important for brands and I think there was definitely an opportunity to develop that from a creative point of view for the AA. 

In terms of broader, above the line channels, mainly what’s been effective in the past couple of years is building a campaign around TV and larger reach media. I know that has worked. We won an IPA gold a few years ago – before my time – with singing baby, and that led the way for a new approach to communications and thinking about how our media mix could develop as a result. But TV was a big one and still is a big one for us just from that broader reach point of view.

But tactical marketing is also important. We sponsored some Spotify road trip playlists, for example, that complemented the recent campaign, as well as contextual out-of-home that, depending on what city you were in, had relevant city names, such as ‘London, we’ll get you back on the road’. As well as broad reach, it’s about a contextual, customer-led approach to marketing. Thinking about where people are going to be and how best to have relevant and engaging messages at those different points on a customer journey. And, as I mentioned, social media has become really important for being part of people’s daily lives and cultural conversations.  We actually launched the Tukker campaign on social before we went on TV and radio and out of home, so that was a key one for me.

What have you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic on a personal level, and also from a marketing and branding point of view?

On a personal level I think it’s about remaining positive and about bringing a smile to the work that you’re doing, making sure that you remain upbeat. It’s been massively challenging for everyone and I think that, certainly in a job like this, the social aspect of being around a table with a marketing team and a commercial team, and being able to thrash things out and talk things through, becomes so much more challenging. That was a real challenge with a remote production of a creative campaign as well.

So I would say remaining positive. And I think that has laddered into the approach from a brand point of view as well. I was really keen with the Tukker campaign, in particular, to bring a smile to people’s faces, to think about the positive spin on what the AA can offer people and how we can help get people back on the road and do that in an engaging, differentiated, creative way that makes people sit up and remember us. But also, hopefully, have a bit of a smile and, with the track we went with, hopefully have a bit of a dance around the room. It’s all about that positivity.

You recently held a couple of drive-in cinema events. Tell us a bit about that.

We had two AA Getaway drive-in cinema events – one in the south, in Bicester, Oxfordshire, and one in York up in the north of England. Both were over three days – Friday, Saturday, Sunday. The one in Bicester was September 11-13 and the one in York was September 18-20. We had more than 1,000 cars with almost 5,000 guests across both events, so quite a lot of people attended.

How did it go and why did you think it was important to host an event like that?

It went really, really well. We’ve had fantastic feedback – really positive feedback, which is brilliant. Again, it felt like a very important thing to do, to give people a bit of an escape and a moment to enjoy getting out of the house in a safe, COVID-friendly way. It obviously relates well to us as a brand, being in the comfort of your car, almost as a second living room, with huge cinema screens in front of you.

It’s a relatively new thing for this country. There have been a few other drive-in events going on, but we felt it was such a natural thing for us to do as a brand regardless of COVID and as a leadership brand, we wanted to make it a quality experience – amazing airfield locations, three massive LED screens, local food and drink direct to your car, booming in-car speakers…I went on the Friday to the Bicester event and it was just fantastic seeing it all come together.

A load of work went into it. We had about 60 staff at each event so really good to support local food and drink companies, as well as the events and cinema industry, at this tricky time. From a brand point of view, it was about an extension of that feeling of the freedom of driving and escape with film choices, locations and food and drink that hopefully related well to a wide range of people.

Is there any kind of advice you would give marketers who are thinking about possibly hosting an in-person event?

I suppose, as usual with branded events, first of all it’s a case of making sure it absolutely ties in to your brand positioning and your brand story, so it doesn’t feel at odds. From a practical point of view, I would just say it’s the usual stuff in terms of planning in advance, making sure you’re flexible on where and when things can happen. 

What’s tricky about the scenario we’re in now is that there are just so many more things to consider. So it’s ensuring that everything is safe from a COVID-19 point of view, things that need to be sanitised, there’s decent social distancing and so on as appropriate. But, apart from those added elements, it’s just making sure that you’ve got a good team on it, the planning is down to a tee and there’s flexibility as and when things might change. We were just praying that it wouldn’t rain, to be honest, and luckily we got really good weather for it.

Will you be hosting any more drive-in cinema events?

We’ll see how it goes. We’ve had really positive feedback, especially from AA Members, which is great. We made the Saturdays exclusive for our members, which hopefully was a nice moment of escapism in an otherwise challenging year. So I feel like it definitely could be more of a regular fixture for us but for now it’s TBC.

You began running the advert with Tukker the dog this summer. How and why did that ad come about?

I joined the AA in March and within two weeks we had a lockdown in the UK. We had to quickly get together as a brand and wider commercial product team to work out what our strategy was going to be for the rest of the year. We initially pulled media spend but we had to decide what, in the mid to long term, we did want to do with media.  

I felt quite strongly that there was a really good opportunity to speak to people, to speak to UK drivers I suppose, as they were getting back on the road after lockdown. Because we had been talking a bit about the freedom of driving as a positioning, it felt really natural to pursue that and think about the best kind of creative route for it. 

It was obviously very challenging to predict the timing of how things would play out but luckily the stars aligned to an extent and in July we went out just a week after Boris’ announcement, meaning that we were there or thereabouts with creative that felt relevant, relatable and bold, which were the three things we were really keen to get across. 

In terms of the brief, there were different creative ideas on the table. We were looking at different insight-led approaches to how people chose to get back on the road and their driving life and so on. But it felt like, actually, in this time of uncertainty and negativity, that going down a route that felt very joyous and expressive and positive, with a character that embodied that feeling of getting back on the road, just felt right. As we developed that further and further, and we chose the music and we looked at the scripting, then we created a puppet, it became more and more apparent that it fitted nicely and we were all getting really excited about the idea coming to life.

Tukker seems to be a very popular character. What are the chances of people being able to get their hands on their very own Tukker in the future?

It might be in the pipeline but I can’t confirm any more at this stage!

Will he be appearing in any more adverts?

It’s hard to say. He’s clearly liked and, at the moment, we’re just enjoying working with him. I can’t confirm right now but we’ll see – an exciting future potentially.

What are your marketing plans looking like for the rest of the year and heading in 2021?

They’re looking quite reactive in the short term, to be perfectly honest, and we’re having to plan as we go to an extent. We clearly have a broad plan of what we want to do next year and we’ve been having those conversations internally for a few months now. But, in terms of the rest of this calendar year up until Christmas, I think based on the latest news the focus has to be back on practically helping people through the period, making sure we’ve got the right advice for people if we go back into more of a full-scale lockdown. 

Clearly the AA will continue to support UK drivers in the way that it has always done. From a marketing point of view, I’m just very conscious that we continue to make people aware of the great things we’re doing, that our leadership credentials are made clear to everyone, and that we ensure we give drivers confidence on the road as well as practical advice. But also, like I said before, I think brand marketers have a responsibility to give people something to smile about at this very strange and unsettling time.

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