Making ad stars out of employees
They're keen (and cheap) and can add credibility and authenticity to brands
16 October 2023
So what's the biggest asset an organisation - whether it be advertiser or indeed agency - has? It's the value of the brand, obviously. But in close second place is its staff - another intangible asset, maybe, but one that is crucial to the prospects of that business and the value of the brand itself.
It's little wonder then that many advertisers (and to a lesser degree agencies; perhaps lessons were learnt after this excruciating effort from Mindshare), have wheeled out staff members in their promotional activity.
Curry's has long put the qualities of its staff at the forefront of its advertising, using both real-life colleagues and actors. Of its latest campaign, Aisling Lancaster, Head of Brand & Advertising at Currys, says: “These ads allow us to playfully show just how far our colleagues are willing to go to make sure they are tuned-in to today’s tech trends, whilst underscoring how valuable this face-to-face service is to our customers.”
Putting your staff to work in your ads is cheap, relatively easy to pull off and - crucially - not only spreads some feelgoods internally but anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers are more likely to trust recommendations from people they know (or feel they know).
We take a look at some of the brands that have used their employees in ads; why they chose to do so; and offer suggestions on the best way to approach it.
The Cannes Winner
In 2021 TBWA\London won a Grand Prix in the Health and Wellness category at Cannes for its #StealOurStaff campaign for BECO, a social enterprise that makes environmentally-friendly toiletries with an 80 per cent visually impaired, disabled or disadvantaged workforce. The campaign challenged other British businesses to steal its staff in order to raise awareness of the 'Disability Employment Gap'.
Andy Jex, chief creative officer at TBWA\London, says: "As the name suggests their staff were absolutely essential to the idea of 'Steal our Staff'. Without them it just wouldn’t work. The aim was to drive brand awareness and sales through a campaign that highlighted the cavernous disability employment gap. 80 per cent of the Beco staff have a disability. We chose to showcase how fantastic the Beco staff are and in doing so encourage other brands and corporations to do better when it comes to hiding people with a disability.
"It has a little David and Goliath about it. If a tiny soap brand from Chingford, east London can run a company successfully with a disabled workforce then there’s not reason thousands of others can’t too."
Saying Thank You
But using staff in ads isn't just for highlighting a particular issue or cause. It can also be used to show appreciation for the efforts of employees - and promote them at the same time.
This campaign from The&Partnership used real-life vets to show the credibility of Vets4Pets staff and to celebrate the vets, veterinary nurses and support teams that worked tirelessly throughout the Covid pandemic to care for the nation’s pets.
Toby Allen, executive creative director at The&Partnership, says: “Pets at Home and Vets4Pets colleagues are the beating heart of the business. Like the nation they are mad about pets - and it’s their expertise and care that means more people trust them with their pets, than anyone else. So, wherever we can, we prefer to cast real colleagues, to authentically show the nation how just ‘all for pets’ they are."
As well as showing their expertise, using staff in advertising can also potentially be a great source of engagement and pride for the workforce.
Sam Williams, head of strategy at AMV BBDO, says: "We saw this with Royal Mail when working with their posties - as well as being a powerful symbol of trust for customers, working with them in Royal Mail’s advertising allowed the business to demonstrate a real respect and appreciation of the work they do across the country."
This is an approach that the agency has also adopted with Currys for some time.
He continues: "When working with Currys we saw that their real strength versus the competition lay in the expertise of their staff – their competitors either didn’t offer staff at all or weren’t able to offer expertise at the same scale. We had a choice to either just tell customers about this superior offer… or use their colleagues as living proof. We believed the latter would be most powerful and we were quickly proved right as early tracking data showed that ads featuring colleagues were 2.5 times more effective at cutting through with audiences (Kantar, 2017) - which is why we’ve always stayed committed to colleagues, in different guises, ever since."
Using staff in ads ticks many boxes - and even more so on on social channels like TikTok and Instagram where brands like RyanAir, M&S and Currys have handed over the reins of their corporate narrative in a much more fun, authentic, and engaging way than on TV.
Mike Watson, creative director at Wunderman Thompson, says: "The arrival of social media has made using employees in advertising more prevalent. Why? These lo-fi campaigns, often shot on phones, can be quick to turnaround and inexpensive. They can help express the emotional side of a brand through tough times (something we saw a lot of during the Coronavirus era of advertising). And using the people who deliver the brand experience everyday conveys authenticity."
Authentic, But Not Necessarily Slick
But it does come with caveats - not least if the brand does not live up to what it is trying to promote.
As general advice for working with staff, Jex says: "Don’t make judgements about who people are, how they behave and what they think. Spend time with them and showcase them in a way that’s real. The truth brings way more unexpected stuff.
"They’re not actors. Sit them down, make them feel comfortable what’s being asked of them, how they’re going to be represented. Don’t give them lines to remember. Have a chat. Feed them the general idea of what you want, but let them respond in their own way."
Allen at The&Partnership agrees. The casting process is key to ensuring a credible performance from people who are not trained to be in front of the camera. He says: "When it comes to storytelling there’s always a balance to strike between authenticity and performance. A talented clinical expert or customer adviser isn’t necessarily a talented actor, comfortable in front of camera or delivering lines. Working closely with the director, this is assessed through the casting process on a case-by-case basis, reviewing colleague’s casting tapes to identify the right role for them.
"Where colleagues can naturally be themselves, we will always prefer to cast them. However, when making an emotive and entertaining film like our ‘We’re all for Pets’ brand film, some roles demanded great performances to do our colleagues justice - for example, the vet – and in these cases we cast an actor."
But that doesn't mean that there aren't substantial advantages of using staff alone. Allen says: "Ultimately, using colleagues is great, especially for a part that doesn’t require lots of acting, and whether you are using colleagues or actors, the important thing is to represent them in a way that is authentic and makes them feel proud.”
A particularly good example of an authentic performance where not much acting was required comes from this "Every Lesson Shapes a Life" campaign from Havas London. It follows real-life science teacher, Addison Brown, during a typical day at Bedford High School in Leigh, Manchester.
He became the face of the Department for Education TV campaign in 2020 and has continued to promote the recruitment of teachers into the profession ever since. That's something that few actors ever get to do.
Three Of The Best
We asked Wunderman Thompson's Watson to pick some of his favourite examples:
The Swedish Number
Ok, so not quite employees, but close enough. In 2016, The Swedish Tourist Association gave their country a phone number open to the world. When someone called The Swedish Number they were connected to a random resident (who had signed up to be part the campaign) to answer any questions the caller may have about Sweden. The campaign generated more than 9 billion impressions, and $146m of media value with zero media spend. Even the Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, got involved.
In 2009, only three years after Twitter was born, Best Buy recognised that their customers were using the social platform to reach out to them rather than through their traditional call centre. The company empowered 2600 employees to respond in real-time, sharing their knowledge about its products. TwelpForce was born, 28,000 customer inquiries were solved, and complaints dropped by 20 per cent in the first year.
Jonathan Warburton, chairman of Warburton’s, has featured in every ad alongside stars who have proven long-term appeal like Miss Piggy, George Clooney, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Kay, Robert Di Niro, and more recently, Samuel L. Jackson (who plays Warburton himself).
What I love about the Warburton campaigns is that the company's tone is set from the top i.e., we take baking seriously but never ourselves. It’s a brand that clearly understands the importance of entertaining their viewer, and they clearly enjoy doing it, which is why it connects emotionally.