Interview with Conrad Bird on the GREAT Britain Country Branding Campaign

Meet Conrad Bird, the Director of the GREAT Britain campaign, the government’s international campaign to generate jobs and growth from tourism, trade, investment and education. Before joining the campaign, Conrad spent many years in advertising, working with a number of agencies focused on national and international business. In this interview, Conrad shares his insights on the campaign, its role after the Brexit referendum, and strategies moving forward. 

Learn about:

  • Tourism and destination communications with the GREAT Britain campaign;
  • Challenges the campaign faces since the Brexit referendum;
  • The specialized needs of a place branding campaign compared to that of product branding;
  • How the GREAT team is tracking ROI and measuring people’s perceptions of Great Britain.

Conrad, you’ve been involved in communications and advertising for many years. Can you tell us how you became involved with destinations, tourism and your work today with the GREAT Britain campaign?

I spent 15 years in the private sector, running my own agency and working on national and international business before joining the public sector. My ambition has been to combine the best of the private sector’s talent, commitment and attention to quality, with the many strengths of the public sector to run effective, large scale campaigns on issues that can benefit people’s lives.

I had some experience of working with tourist authorities before I became involved with the GREAT Britain campaign, but it was my four years at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where I was Head of Public Diplomacy and Campaigns that led to my involvement. I was responsible for some projects that aimed to project Britain’s soft power, including preparations for the 2012 Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympics. That led directly to working on the GREAT Britain campaign.

What was the motivation for a campaign like this?

The GREAT Britain campaign was developed in the run-up to the amazing events taking place in Britain in 2012. In 2011, the UK Government was very conscious that these global moments provided a unique opportunity for the country to promote Britain around the world.

The extra impetus was provided by the economic conditions we faced – it was essential we made the most of the Olympic legacy and attracted more tourism, inward investment and high-quality students to the UK – as well as supporting British exporters. This combination of opportunity and challenge was the real motivation behind the campaign.

The central coordination for that push came direct from the Prime Minister’s Office. The team in No. 10 recognized that the government departments and organizations charged with promoting the UK overseas needed to pool their efforts behind one single, compelling and coordinated program. And it needed to happen quickly and at a level of ambition that outstripped what had been done before.

Five years later and that initial effort and investment has demonstrated its worth: To date, GREAT has generated more than £2.1bn for the UK economy across tourism, investment, education, and trade promotion with a further £2.1bn being validated. The underlying objective of the campaign – to generate jobs and growth for Britain – is still the same. It what gets the team out of bed every morning!

What challenges are you now facing since the Brexit referendum and change in government, and how have your strategies evolved?

The first challenge is trying to understand the impact of Brexit from an overseas audience perspective. This can be hard in the UK where, unsurprisingly, the vote and its aftermath continue to dominate the daily discourse. We’ve tried to cut through the commentary by commissioning a very extensive social listening report amongst our audiences in India, China, the USA, and Germany.

The results were interesting. After a spike of interest surrounding the vote, most people moved on very fast, and any remaining interest was self-focused – for instance, dollar-sterling exchange rate searches leaped straight after the vote. This was instructive because it’s easy to project our feelings onto others, particularly when the issue is so dominant in the UK media.

That’s not to say that Brexit won’t affect the GREAT campaign profoundly. It certainly will, and we are working closely with the new Ministerial team to ensure the campaign fully supports their objectives and that we seize the opportunities presented as well as to guard against any risk.

Changing exchange rates present opportunities for British exporters and may tempt new tourists and students, so GREAT needs to increase its efforts to encourage people to look again at what the UK has to offer.

Looking further ahead, we need to monitor audiences’ perceptions of the strength and warmth of the British welcome. We remain an open, connected and global nation – and we need to ensure our audiences understand this. The London 2012 Games gave the UK a real boost in this area and busted lots of myths about how visitors to the UK will be received here. It’s such an important perception across all of our campaign messages – not just tourism and education where the link is clear, but also in trade and investment, where the feeling of welcome is one of the important underlying emotional drivers for these decisions.

#OMGB campaign
#OMGB campaign

How do you communicate the specialized needs required of a place branding campaign to the various agencies you work with, and how the approach might require more considerations and nuances than branding or advertising products, e.g., laundry detergent or coffee?

We’ve worked with a number of excellent agencies on the GREAT campaign and each in its own way has taken the campaign forward from when our relationship with them began.

I know that every client could say this, but the agencies that work best with us understand that we’re a unique client and GREAT is a unique campaign. It’s a campaign that requires a breadth of talent and flexibility and probably quite a bit of patience! Part of my responsibility as the director of the campaign is to ensure that we are the best client we can be and we truly allow our creative partners the opportunity to flourish. The fact that we have won 40 national and international awards is a testament to their efforts.

I think the scope and scale of the campaign can be quite eye-opening for the agencies we work with and trying to change the perceptions of huge, global audiences does require a shift in perspective. Agencies cannot treat a country like they would treat a commercial brand, although many of the principles of marketing remain the same. For instance, while a product focuses on a particular target audience, our range of ‘products’ is broad and varied – ranging from healthcare, technology, green energy, automotive and infrastructure to film, fashion, creativity, education and tourism.

However, much as we try to simplify the messages the UK is a still a very complicated place to sell to the world. There are many stakeholders to work with – not least 23 Government Departments and organizations, thousands of businesses, high profile British celebrities and the Royal Family and many, many others.

While many of our audiences have a good understanding of what the UK has to offer, others are completely unfamiliar with our country. For instance, we can never assume that a potential tourist in Los Angeles, however sophisticated, is aware that London and Scotland are both in the same country and just a few hours apart.

With GREAT and the other campaigns I lead, we strive to be world-class. We look carefully at countries like France and how it is promoting investment and how Australia is promoting tourism, but I want our campaigns to be held up against the best work being done by the big private sector brands, and I want our teams to learn from the most innovative companies and agencies.

How do you measure people’s perceptions of Great Britain?

Having a thorough understanding of the perceptions of our international target customers is the most important factor in how we strategically develop and tactically deliver the GREAT Britain campaign.

At the outset of the campaign, we took the decision to put measurement and evaluation at the heart of our activities so that all our decisions were evidence-based and output focused. For a cutting-edge campaign that aspired to speak to countries, markets and customers worldwide, it was essential that we fully understood perceptions of Great Britain on both a highly detailed and, crucially, a longitudinal basis.

The GREAT Britain campaign has been gathering segmented customer insights since 2012 and undertaking detailed global perception surveys at least annually, so we have generated a wealth of longitudinal perception data across key markets worldwide which has played a vital role in helping us to optimize the effectiveness and impact of our activities.

In terms of how we undertake practical perception measurement, we survey our target customers in different sectors and geographies worldwide including frequent international travelers, businesses that have the potential to invest in or trade with the UK and young people who are considering an international education. For each group, we ask a range of detailed questions to understand how their perceptions of the UK are evolving and the types of communication messages and channels that will resonate most effectively with them.

These questions probe both the positive and negative perceptions that target customers of Britain and include prompted and unprompted campaign recall, likelihood to purchase from the UK, existing knowledge of the UK and understanding of the UK’s key competitors.

Perception measurement on this scale can be both complex and time-consuming, but the rewards regarding ongoing market insights have been invaluable to us in shaping the strategic development and direction of the campaign.

Significantly the National Audit Office, which undertook an independent, detailed review of the GREAT Britain campaign in 2015, commended us for our “strong marketing and communication tools and materials…[that] provide an important element of consistency…which helps to embed the brand by creating familiarity among target audiences and markets.”

You are quoted of saying, “I need ROI, not eyeballs.” How do you measure the success and ROI of the GREAT Britain initiatives?

That comment applies to all the Government’s campaigns, and I stick by it! Measuring return on investment has been one of the most important principles of the campaign since its launch, and we could never have continued for so long if we didn’t ruthlessly focus on it. Quite simply, I see the GREAT Britain campaign as a program designed to generate measurable economic returns for the country – and we use branding, marketing, and communications techniques to achieve this. It is also essential that I can be as confident as possible that taxpayers’ money is being invested wisely. Through Ministers and Parliament, I am ultimately responsible to them.

I wanted to set this robust tone from the outset of the campaign, so I submitted our detailed plans and ROI targets through HM Treasury’s most stringent appraisal process which is typically used for scrutinizing major government infrastructure projects. Submitting a marketing campaign through this detailed appraisal process was unusual, but it confirmed that we were serious about generating ROI. After careful analysis by HM Treasury’s economists, they were impressed with our plans and supported our focus on hard ROI outcomes, robust measurement, and best practice evaluation. I am pleased to say that they now regard the campaign as an investment, rather than a cost.

In terms of day-to-day measurement and evaluation, each organization that becomes involved in the delivery of the GREAT Britain campaign is required to evaluate spend and to have a robust economic evaluation approach that takes account of factors such as deadweight, additionality, and attribution. We track incremental expenditure from international and domestic tourists, the value of export deals and foreign investment projects and the value of international students that choose the UK for their education.

Importantly for ongoing improvement, my central team ensures that our delivery partners are regularly challenged to improve their evaluation methodologies to best practice levels and to consider new measurement techniques, such as counterfactual assessment and the economic impact of returns from social media.

Of course, it is always important to have large numbers of “eyeballs” seeing a campaign like ours and we collect a lot of reach and engagement data – it is more important, however, for us to know exactly what the “eyeballs” have done as a result of the campaign! With this approach, I have been able to generate a robust output-driven evidence base that enables our public and private sector partners and stakeholders to understand our impact and where they can fit into that success themselves.

Ultimately, we want to ensure that for every £1 spent, we generate a return of at least £25 in benefits for the UK economy (up from £20 in our first years). I intend to continue pushing this ROI higher each year by continuously improving our customer insight, campaigning, collaboration with private sector partners and evaluation techniques.

In your view, which are the most important factors for places – countries – to maintain a strong, positive reputation over time?

Work out what you are doing this for – what is your measurable objective – which sounds easier than it sometimes is. Understand your audiences completely and continually, and recognize you are competing for their attention. So, surprise, delight and engage them. Understand and monitor your competition at all times, be true to your country or place – authenticity is key.

Treat reputation and branding seriously – in a company, it is a board-level concern and needs to be driven from the very top.

Don’t rely on committees to come up with amazing ideas – a small dedicated team is much more effective. Take risks – and take pride, promoting your country abroad to generate jobs for your fellow citizens is a huge privilege. And don’t be afraid to take some risks and make mistakes.

Your favorite examples of best practice in country/nation branding?

Massive respect to Sweden for their ring a Swede campaign. Mexico and Indonesia are doing some very thoughtful work. Costa Rica has a very strong campaign I understand, and I would like to find out more; I’m interested in what Japan does in the run up to their Olympics. India’s strong investment campaign adds to their years of first-class tourism work.

Three books everyone in charge of managing country reputation should read…

Read 300 books about the country or place you are looking for brand – everything from history to literature. For instance, I love Haruki Murakami’s work – and it can tell you as much about Japan as any research document.

Try and read as many books about the country from outsider’s eyes. Then, to look at the future and the opportunities everyone in the business faces, read all about artificial intelligence and machine learning!

Thank you, Conrad.

Connect with Conrad on LinkedIn or follow the GREAT Britain campaign on Twitter.


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