TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards 2017: How AA’s Dougal Swift transformed a ‘cardigan and slippers’ brand to win Marketer of the Year

Ask a marketer what they’re most proud of in their careers and you’ll likely hear a tale about numbers and gains. For the AA’s general manager of membership and brand, Dougal Swift, that number is two and it describes the number of lives his initiatives have saved.

It’s the result of the AA’s partnership with Specsavers to deliver a free eye exam to AA members. Had the partnership not existed, those two people wouldn’t have been tested and their life-threatening conditions wouldn’t have been picked up.

“If you think a marketing initiative you’ve done has resulted in someone’s life being saved, it’s a nice thing,” Swift says.

The Specsavers partnership is one of many that have come into play since Swift joined the team in 2004. He sees partnerships as a way to enhance the value of an AA Membership—which is one of his prime focuses alongside growing membership and maintaining and developing the AA’s brand via visual identity and service reputation.

And considering that focus, Swift sees leveraging partnerships as one of the most important skills he’s brought to the organisation and those who nominated him for the Marketer of the Year Award agree.

“[It is] the value created for everyday New Zealanders through great partnership marketing that is outstanding, and we believe, worthy of acknowledgement,” reads the entry, before adding Swift’s vision as a key attribute to his success.

At the time of Swift’s joining, the AA was seen as a ‘cardigan and slippers’ brand that had grown tired since its launch in 1903. Its core roadside offering was losing relevance in the face of competition and while it remained incredibly trusted, Swift identified the need to bring it up to date and improve the existing offering.

Now, 13 years later, the AA is perceived by the public as a dynamic and progressive brand, with a 60 percent increase in membership to match.

“Seeing it grow from one million to over 1.6 million is really satisfying,” says Swift.

But those aren’t the only numbers demonstrating Swift’s impact on the brand as the last five years have seen the AA brand strength grow from 55 percent to 75 percent and its momentum rise from 21 percent to 82 percent.

Being able to measure success by a clear business result is one of the appeals Swift sees in marketing and it’s a passion that started at Air New Zealand in 1996.

During his eight years with the airline, he worked across various roles in sales and marketing, with his last giving him responsibility for managing loyalty, including Airpoints and Koru Club. His nomination describes him as “The Godfather” of the Airpoints programme and credits that experience as one that’s helped him transform the AA. 

“Dougal is an exemplar of marketing. An exceptional leader who has taken marketing to the high table by redefining partnership marketing.”

Commenting on his leadership, Swift says his open door policy allows him to work closely with his team while also giving them personal responsibility to do work they are proud of.

“If you can show someone a really clear development plan and give them confidence you have their career at heart, they will be very loyal to both me as their manager and the organisation.”

But it’s not just his team that is developing, as he too is advancing his practice in response to industry shifts. Over the years, the depth of customer data companies can leverage has increased while new media has changed the way brands interact with customers.

“When I started in the 90s it was about big brand ads on the TV and traditional direct mail was the big thing,” he says.

“I’ve witnessed that migrate quickly to email and more recently, we’ve seen digital marketing channels replace TV. We’ve also seen reliance on agencies reduce significantly because a lot of the technology we used to have to go to agencies for, we can now do in-house.”

Swift says that in-house capability allows everything to move faster, however, he still takes a very considered approach to everything it takes to market. He says the team is continuously testing different elements of marketing pieces and from that, it refines its understanding of what works so it can iron out anything the members don’t like.

“It’s very easy to be reactive in an environment that you can market to people quickly, but we try to take a more strategic long-term view as to what we’re going to send.”

While the AA is responding to the shifting media climate, at the same time, the relationships consumers have with brands are also changing. The rise of social media means people now place a great faith in what their friends or acquaintances say, which in turn has seen the rise of influencer marketing.

However, Swift believes consumers are becoming aware of it and they’re much more cynical than they were two years ago. With this in mind, he hopes the AA’s authenticity will prove to be its strong suit.

“It’s something AA prides itself on,” he says. “We are a motoring club owned by members where all the value we make is ultimately delivered back to our members, not shareholders.” 

Marketer of the Year
Dougal Swift (The New Zealand Automobile Association)
Judge’s comment
“Dougal is a strong marketing leader, bringing together business issues, consumer insight and a clear strategy for future success which has led to a transformation in organisational performance and results.
This has been most recently demonstrated in converting the AA from a motoring club to a diverse membership group, adding value and benefits across multiple categories for New Zealanders.”
Angela Weeks (Lewis Road Creamery), Ben Wheeler (Lion), James Woodbridge (Burger King – Antares Restaurants), Regan Savage (Kiwibank)
  • This story will also appear in the Awards issue of NZ Marketing. 
  • To read more on the TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards 2017, click here.

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