Legend of the SEEK: Helen Souness on knitting, testing and risk-taking

Helen Souness is the Kiwi marketing director responsible for managing SEEK, the hugely successful online trans-Tasman employment brand. She’s based at the company’s Melbourne HQ but regularly returns to New Zealand to develop and test campaigns and jumped back across the ditch last week to host a series of local marketing workshops and forums for SEEK’s diverse bunch of large and small advertisers, where she provided plenty of insights around how it became a celebrated employer and consumer brand.

“The brand we are presenting to the world and the brand we live and breathe in the office are exactly the same thing. It makes our job so much easier. I think every marketer wants to represent a great brand that consumers really connect with, as well as a great employer brand, and SEEK is full of hundreds of engaged advocates,” she says.

While the ‘how to’ of employer branding is particularly relevant to the SEEK advertiser audience, Souness shared everything from brand strategy to channel selection, and opted to focus most of the session on the three key lessons she has learned: stick to your knitting, test it and take risks.

Firstly, the knitting. A message dressed in familiar brand cues will connect more effectively than if you send out your message in a whole new outfit. It makes perfect sense, but it’s easily forgotten.

“There was only one campaign in our history where we abandoned the signature SEEK crazy pink and it didn’t work for us at all.”

And Souness says this is not just a lesson for new marketers, but a trap for all players.

“In the Australian market, I see banks reinventing themselves all the time and completely changing the way the brand appears. It’s marketing 101, but I think that fundamentally your customer has to recognise you, or the connection won’t be made.”

As for the testing, every marketer knows focus groups are part of a best practice mix. But if you’re a small business strapped for cash, she suggests asking the people in your local coffee queue what they think. You may not be able to get a full report, but you will know if it’s completely wrong. If 50 percent are screwing up their noses at you, there are only two conclusions to be drawn: the campaign idea has missed the boat completely or you’ve got something stuck in your teeth.

“We are constantly measuring success by testing ‘fame’ and ‘love’ for the brand. We do that with research agencies but anyone can measure the effect of the message by asking simple questions of customers. For example, ask every customer you deal with if they would recommend you to a friend. Very quickly you could measure advocacy of your brand, which is the best predictor of future purchase behaviour. You can gather quantitative data within months in any small business that way. It’s a matter of deciding to do it and making it a priority rather than thinking of it as a ‘nice to have’ marketing discipline.”

She also says that between the two markets, New Zealand is the more difficult one to crack, so SEEK has tested campaigns for both markets in New Zealand, simply because if we go for it, the Aussies probably will too.

“We researched our latest campaign thoroughly in New Zealand, then just to confirm our assumptions we did some light testing in Australia.”

Souness says one of the reasons this approach works is because there are more similarities between the two markets than differences, but that our sense of humour and world-leading creative are two uniquely Kiwi attributes that the brand needs to work with.

“I think you have to work really hard to stand out here. New Zealand is just an incredibly creative place and I think that is almost frightening for Australian agencies. You only have to look at what State Insurance is doing now and what Air New Zealand and Tui have done for years to appreciate that.”

Last—and best of all—Souness puts some of SEEK’s success down to good old-fashioned risk taking. When SEEK first appeared on the local map eight years ago it was at a time when the internet bubble was bursting, so there was some uncertainty as to whether a new internet brand would fly. But it adopted ‘the fake it till you make it’ mentality—simply put, it acted like the leading online employment brand until it became the leading online employment brand.

“We did things like advertise in stadiums and large format outdoor locations, to surround our audience in an environment where they are used to seeing leading brands,” she says.

The risk was there, but so was the calculated thinking behind it, and it paid off. Millward Brown research shows that of all adults in New Zealand, more than half can name SEEK unprompted. This is Coke or Ford sized brand awareness, which isn’t bad in eight years.

SEEK also took a risk with the latest ‘If It Exists’ campaign by taking a relatively small budget and using a first time director (and full-time comedian) to make its ads. They even pulled the boom operator off the production crew to star as the Shopping Trolley Mechanic.

“We just really liked this guy. He’s a Kiwi and he just had it, a real natural. We also really trusted our agency, Leo Burnett. They were right there with us, taking those risks.”

It seems audiences are also a fan of the boom operator turned TVC star. ‘If It Exists’ has tracked really well, with Millward Brown research showing recall on the Shopping Trolley Mechanic TVC in New Zealand was at 70 percent, against a norm of 46 percent.

The ‘If It Exists’ viral games have also seen 100,000 New Zealanders playing them. But while that was an online experiment that worked, there have been a few things that haven’t.

“We experiment with five percent of our budget, purely to try new things. We’ve put some things out there in the past that just haven’t flown, but the value has been there in the learning. For example, we’ve learned that just calling something a ‘viral’ doesn’t make it so. It all comes down to the integrity of the engagement. If it’s good, it’ll go places.”

  • Fleur Postill is the New Zealand general manager of Haystac. Disclaimer: SEEK is a Haystac client.

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