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10 July 2015

The Silver Line

Tag(s): Languages & Culture, Marketing, People, Philanthropy
This week I attended the Marketing Society’s annual barbecue on the roof garden of J Walter Thompson’s offices in Knightsbridge.  I have been a Fellow of the Society for over twenty years and have enjoyed this annual bash for much of that time but in the past three years have noted with approval the Society’s using the occasion to launch and then promote its philanthropic arm, Marketing for Good. The speaker this week was Dame Esther Rantzen DBE, the indefatigable journalist and campaigner talking about her new charitable venture, The Silver Line.

The Silver Line is a free confidential telephone helpline offering information, friendship and advice to older people in the UK. Dame Esther set it up in 2012 inspired by her experience in running the children’s helpline ChildLine since 1986. ChildLine has received calls from four million children over 28 years. Following the death of her husband Desmond Wilcox in 2000, she wrote about loneliness describing it as “a creeping enemy” which “erodes confidence”. She was invited to a conference addressing the isolation of elderly people held by the Campaign to End Loneliness and the Centre for Social Justice. Paul Burstow MP, Minister of Health invited her to a meeting in the Department of Health to discuss the creation of a helpline.

A 12-month pilot of the helpline service covering the North of England, the Isle of Man and Jersey was launched in November 2012 with funding from Comic Relief. The helpline aims to provide the following services:
  • Offer information, friendship and advice
  • Link callers to local groups and services
  • Offer regular befriending calls
  • Protect and support those who are suffering abuse and neglect
Evaluated independently by the Centre for Social Justice the helpline was found to have been transformational. One caller told the evaluation, “When I get off the phone I feel like I belong to the human race". Another said she no longer felt as if she had been “shuffled under the carpet”. It was therefore launched nationally in November 2013 with funding from the Big Lottery Fund.

This funding will cover approximately half the costs of the first two years. Wide media coverage helped publicise the free, confidential telephone number 0800 4 70 80 90 FREE which is now open 24/7 every day and night, including Christmas and New Year.  The helpline is based in Blackpool but volunteers known as “Silver Line Friends” can work from anywhere in the UK. Esther told us that already some 500,000 calls have been received and 1600 volunteers recruited to man the helpline.

She read to us from letters she and her CEO Sophie Andrews, previously Chair of the Samaritans, had received. They were all intensely moving, often describing the loneliness that follows bereavement after long marriages. One spoke of “not feeling a waste of space” after having one of these conversations with a volunteer. A ComRes survey for The Silver Line showed that up to 15% of older people, some 2.5 million, feel lonely often or all the time. 9 out of 10 said that the most effective remedy for loneliness is a chat on the telephone.

I had not met Dame Esther before but my colleagues had back in 1978 when as a young Brand Manager I was part of a team in Pedigree Petfoods dedicated to developing our Non-Canned Petfoods business. Our Canned Petfoods were phenomenally successful with brand leaders Pedigree Chum for dogs and Whiskas for cats each returning over 25% Return on Total Assets. But the oil crisis of 1974 had led management to think that the commodity prices of the materials that make up cans would increase quickly and so an investment was made in a new plant at Peterborough to manufacture semi-moist foods. With canned foods the can provides the protection and this can be virtually indefinite. Inside the can the moisture can be as much as you like. With dry foods like biscuit the moisture levels can be  low and so the shelf life is quite long but correspondingly these foods are less palatable and are usually served mixed with food from a can or with fresh foods or scraps. Semi-most foods are positioned in between and use chemicals like propylene glycol as the preservative. The benefit is that they are quite palatable and more compact than cans so cheaper in packaging and shipping costs.

A new product for dogs was developed that used this technology to present a food with the appearance of fresh meat. It was tested at our animal nutrition centre and scored highly on palatability and nutrition. The brand name Hap was adopted based on a German sister company’s use of the name on a similar product. Advertising was developed with the strap line “Hap - looks and tastes like fresh meat!” After all the usual tests and approval processes a major national launch went ahead shortly after I had joined the department after a successful period in the company’s sales force.

All seemed to go well until we learnt that That’s Life!, then well into its 21 year run as one of Britain’s most popular programmes with a Sunday night audience of up to 18 million people, more than Coronation St would attract during the week, had picked up on this story. They tested the idea that dogs could not distinguish between fresh meat, actually fillet steak, and Hap by filming dogs at Battersea Dogs Home. When offered the choice each of the handful of dogs clearly went for the fillet steak. Our agency tried to persuade Esther Rantzen, the lead presenter on the programme, not to show it but she was adamant. My boss, the head of marketing for non-canned pet foods and my colleague the Hap brand manager, then took the train down to London to meet her and her team and try to stop the film being shown. They presented the extensive market research which backed up the claim. They explained that millions had been invested in the plant and hundreds of jobs were at stake. But she would not be moved. She said “I’ve got my film. It’s funny, and I’m going to show it.”

It was funny. A huge audience watched it. Hap was holed below the water line and within a year or so was taken off the market. I was given the job of trying to revive the product under a different name with less extravagant claims but that did not have much effect.

At the time I thought That’s Life! had acted in a cavalier way and for the sake of a cheap laugh had put business and jobs at risk. Now I think quite differently. Our claims for Hap were absurd. We had developed a kind of Group Think that let process take over reason. We needed the success of a major product launch but had not built our product plans on firm foundations. Our marketing strategy was flawed and our advertising ridiculous.

These days such claims are found out more quickly on social media. We don’t really need the Esther Rantzens of this world to point out marketing absurdities. Facebook and Twitter have replaced That’s Life!  But it was Esther Rantzen who led the way as she has on so many issues, many of them much more serious in nature than the technology of dog food.

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