Commercial radio can build brands and generate response, writes Andy Fry
Last month, the commercial radio industry’s marketing body, the Radio
Advertising Bureau (RAB), published a document called The Future of
Commercial Radio, which predicted that by the year 2000 the medium would
take pounds 487m a year in ad revenue. This translates into a 5.1% share
of the national cake.
The RAB also argued that the recent explosion in listener choice has not
significantly affected loyalty to radio stations. It claims that ‘there
are few signs that listener loyalty will erode’. With digital audio
broadcasting set to further fragment the medium, that’s the sort of
reassuring message that advertisers would want to hear.
For anyone familiar with commercial radio such encouraging forecasts
from the RAB will come as no great surprise. Ever since UK commercial
radio emerged from the doldrums in 1992/93, the RAB has been beating its
drum relentlessly, and to great effect. Few would doubt the RAB’s role
in attracting new advertisers.
Yet the medium has reached a watershed. Recently it has become clear
that if radio is to continue to grow it must offer advertisers a more
compelling case than it has done to date. The RAB itself admits that
radio’s impressive growth ‘has displayed the characteristics of an
emerging economy’. It follows that there must come a time when the
volume of listening peaks and the real marketing job begins.
There are indications that the industry is waking up to such concerns.
In recent months, the debate has primarily concerned the need to meet
the brand objectives of advertisers. Brand response advertising,
sponsorship and radio creativity now top the agenda, as shown by the
wave of research papers that have been published recently. The RAB is
currently working on all three areas simultaneously.
Brand response advertising has been a buzzword in television circles for
some time. Nurtured largely by Channel 4, the concept of direct response
was revisited and redefined to incorporate brand-building disciplines
and inspire direct dialogue between client and consumer.
Channel 4 has done much to show that direct-response television can, if
handled sensitively, contribute to the customer’s perception of brand
The question of whether radio could adopt such an approach was tackled
at this year’s Commercial Radio Convention by Howell Henry Chaldecott
Lury (HHCL) managing director Rupert Howell, who has shown that if
anyone can, Tango can.
HHCL has pioneered the use of direct-response mechanisms on television
and recently introduced its Apple Tango Helpline to radio ‘for two
reasons’, says Howell: ‘First, radio is associated with intimate phone-
ins, and secondly, people are used to responding to radio.’
The Apple Tango campaign not only won the industry’s Ariel Awards but it
achieved massive response, pushing the total number of calls to the
Tango Helpline as high as 2.6 million.
That experience suggests that radio, like TV, can perform a dual
branding and response role, as long as the execution is right. ‘Younger
people in particular want to interact with media and the brands
associated with them,’ says Howell. ‘But radio should not behave as
television’s poor relation. You can’t make radio do the same thing as
That view is shared by Diane Maxwell, of Michaelidis and Bednash, who
says: ‘We have to explore the relationship with the listener. Radio can
do good brand response ads but it can’t play by TV rules.’
For Maxwell, radio’s key propositions are intimacy and interactivity.
She claims that over a quarter of local radio listeners have some
interaction with their stations. That position appears to be borne out
by the Direct Response Radio Research (DRRR) consortium, which claims
that radio achieves higher response rates than its television
The DRRR consortium, BT, Classic FM, GWR and the Direct Marketing
Association found that two thirds of radio ads had a direct-response
mechanism and that retail and finance were the heaviest users of such an
Classic FM’s sales, marketing and research manager, Dale Butler, argues:
‘Although radio is on a smaller scale, direct-response radio advertising
is more effective than TV. That is backed up by the positive feedback we
have been receiving from clients about their campaigns.’
The RAB has been doing its own research into radio’s potential as a
brand response medium. It concludes that radio ‘is at least as well
placed to take advantage of the move towards brand response as
television. Radioland is more caring, comfortable and earthy. Radio
communication works at a personal level, which brings brands closer to
RAB strategic planner Jonathan Gillespie says that radio’s strength is
its intimate nature. ‘It’s an emotional medium which people feel
comfortable about talking to directly. Advertisers can create a
dialogue,’ he says.
Such bullishness cannot, however, go unchallenged. The DRRR consortium
has admitted the need for research to look for the ‘emotional trigger’
in direct response ads, and is looking for partners to fund it.
Maxwell’s view is that radio has not demonstrated yet that it can evoke
an emotional response: ‘Television can do things that radio can’t,’ she
says. ‘It can get you to a place quicker.’ She says that many agencies
still have to get used to the idea of direct/brand response. ‘DR can be
something of a dirty word,’ says Maxwell. ‘It reminds agencies that
their job is to sell products, not to create works of art.’
Howell also finds fault with radio: ‘It doesn’t lend itself to DR
because you have to repeat the phone number many times. However, changes
in technology mean the future will be brighter for commercial radio.’
Howell predicts that digital display technology and electronic coupon
information on smartcards will enable radio DR to become more
interesting and creative.
Despite the concerns, there is a consensus that radio’s hold on its
listeners can play an important part in establishing brand values. That
is confirmed by RAB’s Gillespie, who says: ‘We approached ad agencies
last year and received 200 replies. Of those, 90% said radio could help
This message comes across most clearly in the realm of radio
sponsorship, where flexible regulations have allowed much broader
experimentation than on television. Sponsorship is another area where
the RAB has recently compiled and published industry opinions as a
planning aid for agencies.
A key voice in the sponsorship debate has been radio sales house MSM,
which commissioned sponsorship consultant Mike Bloxham to conduct
qualitative research on its behalf last year. In a study entitled
Message Received, Bloxham identified the same trust-based factors that
are required in brand-response advertising. Successful sponsorships
invariably adhere to basic principles of creativity, interactivity,
relevance and useful information content.
That study carried endorsements from sponsors including Wella ShockWave,
Michelob, Air UK and Carphone Warehouse. Each reported that brand and
tactical objectives were satisfied. That survey has now been followed up
by MSM’s research into Snickers’s recent sponsorship of Euro ’96.
The Snickers deal involved the syndication of event-support programming
across 83 stations, which was intended to build UK-wide coverage for the
brand. The research found that 24% of local radio listeners recalled
hearing the bulletins and that most regarded Snickers as a relevant
partner for the competition. What’s more, Snickers was credited with
creating the concept by local listeners, 71% of whom thought the
bulletins were local broadcasts.
Sponsorship on radio varies from uncomplicated (and often ineffective)
badges, through to complex marketing programmes. For key exponents such
as Kiss FM, non-spot advertising can account for up to 40% of all
Kiss of life
Kiss’s success mirrors that of MTV on television, albeit on a smaller
scale. Sponsorship manager Gordon Drummond has successfully exploited
the station’s ambition to be viewed as ‘a way of life’ rather than just
a station, in order to create effective sponsorships and promotions.
Kiss listeners are not averse to commercial messages, as long as they
are not perceived as having cynical sales objectives. Successful
sponsorships tap into the loyalty generated by the radio format itself.
Foster’s Ice demonstrated the pattern with its Icebreakers sponsorship,
which created a slot for new talent to have their demo tapes played on
the station. Popular acts then had the chance to have recordings made
and distributed. Such value-laden methods typify Kiss’s approach.
A free magazine called The Lick can be obtained by phoning the station,
listeners can go on holidays to Ibiza with the station and are regularly
informed of club events. All of these activities can be used to leverage
the impact of commercial brands, which explains why Levi jeans has
partnered Kiss both at the Notting Hill Carnival and at the launch of
Virgin has also created an elaborate approach to sponsorship, according
to sales director Katherine Jacob. In a new sponsorship deal with
Marston’s Pedigree, London-based Virgin FM’s goal was to build awareness
for the popular Midlands-based brand in the capital.
‘We sat down with the clients and asked what they were trying to get out
of the sponsorship. We were looking for a creative slap in the face, not
just a name check. There is no value in creating something that is just
aural wallpaper,’ says Jacob.
The package created included spot airtime, three-month sponsorship of
the 7pm-to-10pm weekday show and a giveaway of 1000 pints of Marston’s
beer for listeners who called in. A voucher could then be redeemed at
Pitcher and Piano pubs.
In a separate deal, Virgin FM’s national sister service, Virgin AM, has
also talked classic direct-response client Admiral Insurance into
sponsoring its traffic and weather on a month-by-month basis. Admiral’s
marketing controller, Julie Budd, admits the company was ‘initially
hesitant about sponsorship’s ability to generate immediate response. We
feel it is beneficial but it’s earlier days in terms of knowing that for
However, despite her commitment to radio as part of the marketing mix,
she stresses: ‘Television is a different ball game and we would not
consider cutting back on it. Radio is not comparable in terms of its
That said, the increasing number of clients entering the radio domain
indicate that clients are becoming attuned to the medium’s potential for
building brands. Gillespie admits that the RAB is engaged in ‘the
process of understanding what the radio medium is capable of delivering
According to Gillespie: ‘Advertisers are no longer satisfied with
straight lead generation or just brand awareness. They are looking for a
dialogue that encapsulates both.’
Before that can happen, however, he says that ‘the greatest challenge,
according to advertisers, is getting creativity to a better level’. More
than anything, this is the battleground for radio.