Why marketers must put people first when embracing innovation

For Virgin Media O2 marketing director Amy Gilbert, innovation is about more than technology. It must bring customers closer to a brand
People share a pizza with friends projected via hologram in Virgin Media's innovative marketing campaign
Virgin Media’s ‘Faster brings us closer’ campaign used hologram technology to allow families to share a pizza during pandemic lockdowns

Innovation ranks high on the list of marketers’ key objectives. But in a fast-moving environment, many find it a challenge to keep up with the pace of change. 

Almost half of CMOs (46%) surveyed by AAR and The Drum say they struggle to keep on top of the latest technological advancements, listing it as the top challenge in their role. This can lead to innovation becoming little more than a “box-ticking exercise”, according to Virgin Media O2 marketing director Amy Gilbert.

“I don’t believe in innovation for the sake of innovation,” she says. “It has got to have a purpose and to drive the business forward beyond the status quo, beyond what you would have already done.” 

This is in her company’s DNA, Gilbert says. The need to be disruptive is growing more important in generating cut-through as audiences grow “increasingly sceptical”.

If used in the right way, Gilbert believes innovation can be “a really powerful tool” to bring customers closer to a brand. The key to taking innovation from an industry buzzword to an effective marketing tool is relevance.

 “Innovation is not just about the technology, or positioning ourselves as a really futuristic brand, but instead focusing on something that people can really relate to and something that really matters to them,” she said at Advertising Week Europe.

That’s why the telecoms company strays away from listing broadband speeds and mobile coverage in its marketing materials. “We don’t bombard people with the technicalities of what powers our broadband. Instead, we really focus on what that connectivity enables,” Gilbert says.

Using tech for campaign success

This consideration helped shape one of the company’s recent campaign successes. Last year – at a time when Covid-19 restrictions meant that people couldn’t meet in person – Virgin Media decided to demonstrate how its broadband could be used to bring back those face-to-face connections that people were missing. 

As part of its ‘Faster brings us closer’ campaign, the company worked with creative agency Audience to create the Two Hearts Pizzeria. For the television advert, two pizza restaurants were built in London and Edinburgh, with the company running a competition to find loved ones in each city who had been separated over the past year due to the pandemic. Using 4K, 3D hologram technology, family and friends could connect over a meal, despite being 400 miles apart.

The marketing campaign won B2C Experience of the Year at the Drum Experience Awards. Perhaps more importantly, it had a total reach of 6.5 million people, outperforming its media KPIs by 257%.

“It’s amazing that we got the coverage and the cut-through that we did,” Gilbert says. “The real success for us was having that very clear and credible role for Virgin Media in driving those human connections when people really needed it most, during the pandemic.”

Although the hologram technology and the broadband product were crucial in powering the experience, Gilbert believes it was the human element that made the campaign a success.  

“Most important for us was the sense of positivity it created around the brand,” she adds. “This really drove that brand connection, which is one of the key drivers in getting us considered by people.”

We don’t bombard people with the technicalities of what powers our broadband. We focus on what that connectivity enables

Another example of the company’s innovative thinking came with the recreation of the O2 Arena London in the popular online videogame Fortnite. Entering the virtual venue allowed players to watch a performance from the band Easy Life. 

Once again, relevance was key. “Through the pandemic, the live music industry pretty much came to a halt,” says Gilber. “At O2, we decided to build the O2 Arena in Fortnight and put on a gig there. That really worked for us, again because of timeliness and how people were feeling at the time, but also because it built on O2’s credibility in the live music space.”

Although both campaigns looked to capture people’s craving for human connection over the course of the pandemic, such concepts shouldn’t be abandoned now that Covid restrictions have been lifted.

“It was highly relevant during Covid; we found a real role that the brand could play in driving those connections that people couldn’t get in person,” Gilbert says. “But I also think that the world hasn’t completely gone back to normal and some of those principles still stand true.”

This could include demonstrating the telecoms provider’s capability to connect people across long distances or to allow individuals to interact with people they wouldn’t normally speak to, she suggests. “It’s now about how we evolve the concept as well as the wider landscape,” she adds.

Marketing in the metaverse

One area of innovation that the marketing director is yet to explore is the metaverse. Gilbert believes this “presents a huge opportunity for Virgin Media” because of its scale. 

“The number of interactions that we can potentially have in the future with people in the virtual space is incredible, compared to what we might have done with face-to-face brand experiences in the past,” she says. 

Many other businesses have looked to quickly launch their own metaverse experiences. Hype around the fledgling technology is high, whether through product launches or virtual events. However, it’s important to ensure that any experimentation with the tech doesn’t come at the expense of the human experience, says Gilbert. 

This means that although Gilbert’s marketing team could potentially look to the metaverse in the future, she admits that “we’re not quite there yet”.

Any smaller businesses looking at the list of innovative technologies employed in Virgin Media O2’s campaigns may baulk at their potential cost. However, Gilbert insists the business “can’t afford to be doing activations for the sake of them or spending money on tech to no end result”.

Although Virgin Media O2 has bigger budgets than some smaller companies, “we still have to make every pound count. For us, driving brand connection is a really strong driver for increasing the number of people who would consider our products and ultimately, that’s what drives business results.”

For example, for every £1 spent on Virgin Media’s holographic pizzeria marketing campaign, 1,355 people were reached. 

By being clear about the purpose of the campaign from the outset, and the potential return on investment, those in control of the budgets are more likely to loosen the purse strings, Gilbert claims. 

In many ways, cost constraints will force such companies to be even more innovative with their own marketing campaigns. Gilbert admits this innovation may come more naturally to brands such as Virgin Media O2, which have technology “at their core”. However, she adds: “It’s not just for technology brands at all. Innovation is important to drive brand growth and to make sure you’re not left behind.”