Profile: Martin George, managing director of group development, Bupa

Martin George, managing director of group development, Bupa
Martin George, managing director of group development, Bupa

A new lease of life: Martin George, managing director of group development, wants to build a positive legacy at Bupa after his traumatic BA exit.

On the wall of Martin George's desk hangs the kind of retro 40s marketing poster that has become ubiquitous in cafes across the UK. This particular example, issued by Bupa shortly after it was founded in 1947, states the organisation's founding principle: to help 'relieve sickness and ill-health of all kinds'.

George, Bupa's managing director of group development, smiles broadly when pointing out the artwork. With the occasional strong Yorkshire intonation, he speaks with pride of the poster's promise to help wider society and not just its customers. It was an instance of Bupa's benevolent corporate culture that aided the marketer during a testing few years.

In his previous job as British Airways (BA) commercial director, George presided over the department that in 2006 was accused of colluding with rival Virgin Atlantic to fix the price of fuel surcharges. The company was fined £120m and George soon resigned, insisting in a letter to BA chairman Martin Broughton that he had 'not behaved in a dishonest way'.

However, with Virgin Atlantic given immunity for blowing the whistle, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) brought its first major criminal investigation against George and three other BA executives.

A protracted build-up meant the trial commenced at Southwark Crown Court only in May last year. However, the case collapsed spectacularly after it was revealed that documents from star witness Virgin Atlantic had not been handed over to the defence, with Justice Owen condemning the OFT's 'manifest failures'. The four defendants were found not guilty.

Nearly a year on, the 48-year-old remains visibly relieved at the outcome. For a senior executive who has been through the mill to such an extent, George has a surprisingly informal manner and is happy to talk about his experiences during the trial.

'It was clearly a challenging time, but when it concluded, the judge said I left with my reputation unsullied, which was really important,' he says. 'When it came to a positive conclusion, I wanted to get on with my life, and to look forward.'

It is easy to relax listening to his easy tone, but one of George's key skills is to grasp control of a conversation without making the other person feel that he is. Such subtle authority will have served him well at BA, and now at Bupa.

George is keen to express his gratitude to the healthcare provider, which hired him as interim marketing director in 2008, with the case still looming. He says it was 'fantastically supportive', and recalls his delight when Bupa boss Ray King offered him an expanded role after the trial.

He is also philosophical about his enforced departure from BA after 19 years with the carrier. 'I look back on the time I had there very fondly. They were wonderful times,' says George. 'It's a great business and a fantastic brand. Frankly, (the departure) gave me opportunities to do things I'd never normally have done - becoming an investor in a restaurant business and chairing Global Radio's charities.'

Most people, he adds, face challenges at some point in their lives. 'That happened to have been mine. You just move on.'

George was especially pleased to cement his position at Bupa so he could continue the transformation of the marketing strategy that he had instigated during his interim tenure. When he joined, he was surprised by the range of products offered by Bupa, including care homes and dental services. George believes a key problem is that the majority of UK consumers see Bupa merely as a private health-insurance firm, rather than as a 'healthcare partner'.

His ambition is to bring Bupa's lesser-known products and services to the fore of marketing, which means ditching its long-running animated campaign, 'Shapes'. George acknowledges that the ad push made Bupa 'more accessible' and allowed it to talk about 'difficult subjects', such as dementia, but he argues it lacked an emotional resonance with viewers.

The brand's new advertising strategy will feature real Bupa customers in a range of situations, emphasising that the healthcare provider offers services for young and old alike, irrespective of health and lifestyle.

Featuring the strapline 'Helping you find healthy', the ads are set to a gospel choir version of Marina & The Diamonds' I Am Not a Robot. 'The tone is uplifting,' explains George. 'It tells consumers that whatever ailments you may have, Bupa can enhance your life.We want to carry that sense of positivity through the campaign.'

Rather than talking about 'advertising' or 'marketing', he resolutely refers to 'communications'. George is the latest in a long line of marketers to take joint responsibility for marketing and PR, and believes the two are converging. 'We have a war room for all the campaign material, be it advertising, PR or digital, where we make sure it is all joined up. PR has never been more important. You put all the money on the table and then allocate it by audience and task, rather than someone insisting "this is the TV money". Those days are long gone,' he says.

The campaign marks the first fruits of Bupa's new marketing team, which George has forged over the past two years, plundering his old BA stomping ground. Former BA marketer Tiffany Hall now operates as Bupa's group marketing director, with Sue Moore also joining from the airline as UK marketing director. One-time PepsiCo vice-president for innovation Fiona McAnena became Bupa group brand director in 2009.

George sees the accumulation of senior marketers as a sign of Bupa emerging as a major international brand, and wants to transform the business into a hub for marketing talent. 'At BA, I worked with so many people who have done tremendously well and I feel tremendously proud to have worked with them. I see people of similar calibre here,' he says.'If in years to come people talk about this as an era when Bupa created exceptionally talented individuals, frankly, there's no greater legacy.'

Indeed, legacy lies at the heart of what is taking place - for both George and Bupa. Although the courts allowed George to emerge from the trial with his reputation intact, the stains of alleged price-fixing will never completely fade.

George is determined to leave a positive mark, and believes he has found a business that offers him the scope to create something memorable. For Bupa, this represents its biggest push to change the perception that it is a brand for the minority.

This is undoubtedly a critical juncture, but if any marketer ought to be equipped to cope with the pressure, it is George.

1984-1987: Marketing trainee, rising to product manager, Cadbury
1987-1997: Various marketing roles, British Airways
1997-2004: Marketing director, British Airways
2004-2006: Commercial director, then board member, British Airways
2006: Founding member of restaurant and media business
2008-2010: Interim marketing director, Bupa
2010-present: Managing director, group development, Bupa

Family: Married with three daughters
Hobbies: Training for London Marathon, spending time with family
Favourite destination: China
Favourite brand: John Lewis
Favourite TV show: Coronation Street

George was formerly a board member of VisitBritain, Visit London and Uniq. He became chairman of Global Radio charities in 2005.


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