5 Questions with Will Harrison, Head of Brand Marketing at The AA

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The AA – originally the Automobile Association – was formed in Britain in 1905 as a motorists’ mutual aid organisation. While its core functions today remain rooted in those motoring-related beginnings – roadside assistance and breakdown cover, reviews of hotels, pubs and restaurants, route planners and driving lessons – it has expanded into many other areas such as financial services and non-motoring insurance. The AA has just released one of the more striking advertising campaigns of the COVID era, showcasing the freedom of the open road with a Latvian puppet dog and a dose of humour.

Tell us about your career history.

I started creative agency side then swapped Soho for Acton and joined Carphone for a number of years in various roles across various business iterations. Then 3 Mobile for a while, with a focus on through-the-line comms plus digital and social content working with [popular web-based magazine] LadBible on @itsrelaxingstuff – proper creative-led marketing. And then the opportunity came up with the AA, which I couldn’t turn down. It’s a fantastic brand to work for. It’s got so much going for it, and it’s really fascinating at this moment in time. It’s a nostalgic brand in some respects, being at the heart of UK drivers’ lives for so long andthanks to the advertising that we’ve all grown up seeing, and it’s exciting to build for the future.

Trust in brands is evolving quickly right now – how is your brand flexing around that?

There’s an element of having to take a bit of a step back as a brand, as well as having to react quite quickly. Doing those two things at the same time is quite a challenge for companies, and certainly to me, coming in fresh to this role as COVID was hitting. It was a case of identifying quite quickly what made the AA, the AA – what was at the heart of the brand. Its purpose, its vision, which is always important in a brand role. But doing that quickly, to establish what our role would be in a scenario where the UK needed help and assistance.

There is a lot of well-earned trust in our brand – the key thing I’ve tried to bring to the AA is relevance and relatability in this time. I think that’s really important for brands, now and for the future – to really makesure that your actions as well as your words are relevant and relatable. And then it’s about just adapting to what the scenario throws at you.

I’ve been reading an interesting book called The Human Brand by Chris Malone and Susan Fiske. And I think the AA is a very human brand, that has human warmth at the heart of what it does. But what that book talks about is warmth and competence. And those two things are as important as each other – it’s the classic rational vs emotional – but it’s really important that actions lead the way, then marketing and communications follow that. I was really blessed with a brand like the AA; we were already having conversations to think about free breakdown cover for NHS workers and helping ambulance services and being part of the ‘clap for our carers’ campaign and things like that at a very early stage of COVID.

What about consumers? What are you hearing from them about the future?

I think there’s clearly an element of nervousness, but I think there is also an overwhelming sense of getting back to normal. Certainly from our point of view the AA as a brand is all about helping people get back on the road and feeling confident both now and in an evolving transport future, with electric vehicles for example.

The AA are an inherently helpful brand. So it’s actually a very natural space for us to be in, in the sense that as COVID hit, for example, as I said, we were already thinking about ways in which we could help drivers. It is inherent to what the AA does. So that was never really a challenge. I think the bigger challenge was how to communicate that and make that simple and effective for people, so that they’re aware of all of the great things that we’re doing, particularly at a time where lots of businesses are out there with limited media channels available. So thinking about a strategic way of using our social channels, for example, to continue a conversation with people in a way that we might not have done previously.

As we look forward, one of the hypotheses that we have, which is thoroughly depressing, is that we may see more and more of these kind of events – not necessarily health-related but global in nature and sparking a global conversation, which brands may need to respond to. As brand managers and leaders, we do need a perspective on that sort of thing, and we need to understand our brand in that new social dimension.

How did you get to the concept of your new campaign – how did it all come about?

The key thing for me was to avoid the COVID cliches from an advertising point of view, and to very much think about an overwhelmingly positive message and to put a smile on people’s faces. And that obviously, ladders back into the confidence that we want to get across asa market-leading brand.

We were talking about the freedom of driving as the core idea. Regardless of COVID – that feeling of being on the road can relate to a weekend road trip just as much as during or coming out of lockdown.And when we thought about it more, we felt like this was a really good moment to think about how a new brand campaign could be true to our values, and have this distinctive visual identity of the AA – those brand colours that are so well known – that simply embodies that feeling of the freedom of driving and getting back on the road. And doing that with complete confidence and the reassurance of the AA behind them.

And that laddered into the creative in all sorts of ways. So, you know, that confidence came through in choosing to go with a puppetdog that was created by Latvian puppeteers, for example, and the look and style of it, we were really keen to pull out the leadership qualities of the AA brand through everything that we were doing, and the confidence. And that also related to the Sophie Tucker track as well that we use; it’s really bold and confident for the AA. And we think hopefully it speaks to lots of different people who just want to have a have a bit of a smile andpotentially have a bit of a boogie around their living room when they see the ad.

I think it’s humorous in its confidence, which clearly ladders back to the way we want people to feel about the AA as well. And I genuinely think the UK needs a bit of humour right now.

Is there any advice that you would give to someone doing a similar role to you?

The three things I would say are:

First, stick to your brand purpose. That’s the key to my point around COVID cliché advertising – I think you need to be a brand that understands its audience and reacts as a result to that, rather than reacting for the sake of it.

The second thing is to always think about actions as well as words. Often we think about brands just in terms of communications, rather than thinking about the whole business and the importance of your actions in a time of need. And I think that’s been really evident in things like the ‘clap for our carers’ campaign, and how important an action actually is from a brand or an organisation.

And the third thing I’d say is to make people smile. I think advertising can often overcomplicate the message it’s trying to get across; sometimes we just need to put a smile on people’s faces.

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