Does Social Housing Need To Find A Richard Branson?

A defining career moment - Support act (No.19!) to Sir Richard Branson...
A defining career moment – Support act (No.19 on the bill!) to Sir Richard Branson…

Screen Shot 2013-02-11 at 11.20.44 It’s May 2008 , and Helena Moore and I have just left the stage at the European Customer Management World Conference. We had just presented to an audience that included John Lewis , Microsoft and some young startup outfit called Facebook. People who we would now recognise as experts in marketing their product and selling their vision.

For most attending it was their first experience of Social Housing.  Our slot was about creating a service culture in a sector not known for sexiness or imagination. We used images of Shameless and Jeremy Kyle. We knew what our audience were thinking and we wanted to debunk the myths and talk about things we were proud of – the extraordinary achievements of our customers and colleagues. These are some of the comments we received:

  • “Loved it! We expected this to be the most boring slot of the day!”
  • “I really thought it would all be about people on benefits and anti-social behaviour – instead it was inspirational”
  • “I thought of council housing and the public sector as old fashioned –  not very commercial “
  • “We were dreading your slot. But I get what you are trying to do – it’s all about helping people be better – right?”

And , for your amusement , two priceless (100% genuine) comments about Helena and I :

  • “It’s good that you two didn’t wear suits – you stood out by being a bit scruffy…”
  • “We love that you guys at Bromford don’t seem to plan anything and are a bit , you know , rough”

Two years to the day after this presentation the Coalition was formed, Gordon Brown packed his bags, and the Labour Party left Government. I don’t believe the incidents were related –  my point is this – we need to forget the talk about a Government demonising social housing. We had an image problem under the last Government and we have an image problem under this one.

We have never been popular. Never been sexy. And in a world where we are all marketeers – it’s time we stopped blaming other people and started dealing with it.

whats_your_story The stories behind Bedroom Tax and Welfare Reform have tipped in the last few weeks. They have gone mainstream. Primetime TV and Tabloid coverage. Clearly we are doing something right.

About 9 months ago I did an experiment about the stories we produce within the sector. It revealed that only 8% of online content was about the people living in our homes and our communities. The rest was about us. And – as I’m sure you know – it’s not about us. 

My latest check has revealed a huge improvement. 25% of social housing output now concerns the lives of residents.  We have embraced social tools to share compelling video with a strong social narrative. We’ve done well at highlighting an issue that matters and pushing it into the public consciousness. But there is still room for improvement.

In the last two weeks a huge 40% of stories generated were about how landlords themselves are going to struggle as a result of reforms. Actual customers were briefly mentioned in passing.

The remaining 35% of output was largely introspective examinations about ( the lack of ) housing finance and development opportunity. If looked at from outside the sector could this be viewed as navel-gazing? A sector that is incapable of innovation and is now feeling sorry for itself?

Back in 2008 Sir Richard Branson headlined the conference. Quiet, unassuming and a little bit nervous – he opened his slot with four minutes of video showing every success and every failure he had been involved in. And then he talked about how he had fought off Government interference and bureaucracy , breaking into new markets by proving the unique value of what his brand could offer customers. The way he told the story of Virgin adding value to the world was electrifying.

You left the room thinking that without them the planet would be a very grey place indeed.

I wonder how Virgin, John Lewis , Facebook and Microsoft would cope with being unpopular , undervalued and underfunded?

I wonder how they would tell their story?

Maybe we should ask them.

NB: ( Statistics used come from 2 weeks monitoring of Google alerts using the search terms – Housing Association , Social Housing , Welfare Reform , Bedroom Tax)


10 thoughts on “Does Social Housing Need To Find A Richard Branson?

  1. Great post, as always, Paul.

    I find your stats about the lack of stories being told about people who live in social housing fascinating. Of course, stories are being told about a few of them, and you highlight these by referencing Shameless and Jeremy Kyle. Programmes like this plant very powerful images in people’s minds.

    That’s why I think the sector has to fight back. Social media allows it to do that, but, as you rightly point out Paul, few have made the step from using it to promote themselves to empowering their tenants to tell their own stories.

    When there was publicity a few weeks ago calling for the demolition of all tower blocks, there was outrage in the social housing sector among those who have carefully managed their high-rise stock to an extent where it is now popular among tenants. At the time, I called for a social media campaign highlighting the stories of satisfied high-rise tenants. No one took me up on that, despite some expressions of support.

    The mainstream media loves to amplify the stories of the few who make life difficult for other social housing tenants. We have to get better at using social media to allow the majority to express themselves.

  2. Thanks John – I’m really interested in your observation about the campaign not being taken up. That , I think , is one reason why social housing has not been as successful at telling it’s story as , say , Shelter , Oxfam or even Comic Relief. We just aren’t very at good marketing ourselves.

    1. Maybe it was taken as a throwaway remark, but I was totally serious about it. Perhaps I need to put a firm proposition out there and see who bites. I will do this when I get a chance.

  3. Great post as ever.
    No I don’t think we need a Richard Branson; because his effect hasn’t necessarily transformed the rest of his sector; and that’s a sector that is inherently glamorous, unlike social housing.

    Instead I think we’d do well collectively to heed your warning about spending too much time focussed on our organisations, rather than the people we serve.
    I’m nervous about rebranding / marketing campaigns; though I appreciate that’s not what you’re advocating.The whole NHF in Business for Neighbourhoods didn’t work in changing public perceptions. On reflection was that because it was focussed on HAs as organisations?

    Richard Branson or his peers have a distinct advantage over us- not many members of the public have strong predjudices against flyers, but they do about the poeple we house. Surveys by MORI and others show very little empathy in some quarters to those we rehouse; which makes it all the harder.

    1. Thanks Tim – first of all I agree we don’t need a Branson – mainly because I don’t think it’s possible for one person to galvanise an entire sector.

      Also agree that Sector wide rebrands are almost doomed to failure as you will end up with middle of the road (sorry inBiz)

      I do still think that social housing can learn a huge amount from people like Virgin. They have tackled difficult new opportunities with rail and air – now health and care. Housing next?

  4. thought provoking as ever – never quite got the sector wide branding idea, but feel there is room for associations to uniquely develop their brand, purpose, and drive customer value – ‘that little bit extra’ type approach which we probably all do but somehow fail to promote effectively. Dare I say we need to look at branding ourselves – perhaps that means starting with the suit and open neck shirt when presenting! as only very few can pull these occasions off like yourself. I often wonder why we dont do more to get ouselves onto the commercial world presentation platforms and business networks. Keep breaking the ice!

    1. Thanks Val appreciate that. Good call about the sector “hanging around in the same circles” and often not expanding its learning. It’s all a bit insular at times though I think social media presents a huge opportunity to make new friends. We need to engage with people who can solve problems. Rather than some parts of sector who would would rather commission a report and then have a meeting about it….

  5. Hi Paul, from the outside looking in I recognise the big advantage that providers have over external agencies/govt initiatives, is the capacity to communicate directly with your tenants and, therefore, have a unique opportunity to positively impact on their individual lives and, in turn, create aspirational communities.

    That, and only that, will be effective in ‘re-branding’ social housing, because to change the perception of others, you first need to change your own.

    As you know, we at GoalsUK CIC are doing our bit to “solve problems” for providers in preparing for welfare reform and tackling worklessness – the first part of this (before we even see a tenant) is ensuring a clarity of vision among front-line staff so that they are able to challenge their own beliefs/mindsets about what they and their organisation can achieve, positively, together.

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