Optus’ Melissa Hopkins on marketing’s renewed power, share of search, and rebranding during COVID-19


Optus, a leading Australian telco, made the decision to proceed with its brand relaunch amidst a global pandemic. CMO Melissa Hopkins speaks to WARC’s Gabey Goh for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 about the opportunity for marketers to reset their C-Suite value, lessons learnt from adopting a unified measurement platform and the issue with new growth metrics.

How have the developments of the year impacted your marketing operations and strategies?

I think the change has been massive. Particularly for us, as we were slated and continued to do a major brand relaunch right in the middle of COVID-19. But I guess for us, two things: it’s forced us to become more innovative and creative, and it has also forced us to really think hard about the consumption moment in which our brand sits.

It’s not just the fittest of the fittest that survive, it’s those that are willing to adapt, change and grow, particularly in the time of adversity. That’s very much what we’ve had to do as a team. We’ve got some luck with the fact that the service that we offer has been a critical infrastructure to keeping Australians connected during this period. 

Our ambition pre-COVID was very much to become a ‘fabric’ brand in Australia and build brand love, something that is often a challenge for telcos. I think COVID has just forced us to be more focused on that. I’m a firm believer that brands are created and can thrive in crises and there’s some really strong examples of where that’s happened in the past. 

I think, if played right, the marketing team’s role is one of the most pivotal in the entire organization, [especially] when partnering with the executive team. Because they are – more than ever – desperate to hear the insights of what’s going on with consumers. We should look at that as a huge opportunity to reset the value that marketers play in that boardroom.

Key insights

  • Business leaders are desperate to hear the insights of what’s going on with consumers and the industry should look at that as a huge opportunity to reset the value that marketers play in the boardroom.
  • Marketing needs to be recognised as the growth engine and managed that way as it’s naïve to assume you can just ask for budget as that’s going to get even tougher over the coming years without being truly able to demonstrate that return.
  • Marketing’s biggest challenge will lie in finding an authentic and distinctive role in consumers lives and avoid being part of a “sea of sameness”.
The pandemic has forced a lot of brands to seek new and creative ways to engage with homebound consumers. What do you think is the best way to approach this challenge?

Number one is consistency. Number two is to have a purpose and reason to be there in the first place. There are many examples where, at the start of COVID,  brands created damage. I use an example of a linen manufacturer, where if they emailed me one more time on how they were keeping me together and supporting me with their 600-thread sheets… I wanted to scold them! Some [brands] just went into complete over-communication. 

We started these things we called “COVID fast facts” every single week, which gave us a view of the sentiment of Australians, what their normality index was, what their concerns were and what their drivers were – good or bad – around our category. That has created so many strong insights for us. The fact that we’ve been doing it weekly and have been able to feed things in and get views out has been incredibly helpful in [terms of] how we’ve pivoted. 

Every single country is managing this differently. You’ve got to be really careful that you fully appreciate and understand the market you’re operating in and what their sentiment is.

Optus recently transitioned to a Unified Marketing Measurement platform in a bid to implement a solution that caters to data-led media modelling through all offline and online channels. How has this new platform helped the team?

It’s helped massively because it’s a tool that can determine the profitability of a sale. So instead of just attributing media spend to a sale, it can work through by product line what our gross margin is. In these times, it provides much needed evidence in protecting our budgets, which is incredibly important. 

The other thing that it’s been able to do is, with particular messages, start demonstrating which channels are actually better and how that has shifted and moved. That has been helpful for us. Setting it up in 12 months was record time because these things often can take two or three years. We built the stack internally, in Australia, but we’ve got over 300 data points that are ingested into this model. 

We are renowned for strong creativity, but [are now] able to partner that with the power that data can bring. The whole ambition is that we no longer want to be seen as a cost centre, we want to be recognised as the growth engine. And we believe we need to manage it that way and it’s naïve to assume you can just ask for budget and I think that’s going to get even tougher with many shareholders over the coming years, without you being truly able to demonstrate that return.

Melissa Hopkins, CMO, Optus

Any key lessons learnt in the process, if you could go back and do it all over again?

Yeah – set it up in the US, not Australia! We built this to be GDPR compliant ahead of time, that was incredibly important for us. In Australia we have additional complexity where we have the Telecommunications Act which adds another layer of privacy requirements on top of any other normal organisation. 

I think we wisely made the investment of getting external legal counsel involved in embedding this because, going forward, it needs to be compliant from a privacy and data perspective. Because of its sophistication, we wanted to be incredibly cautious of the data we were using  – not just of our own customers, but other customers coming in. Another learning was we would have been better off in the pitch process having one of our regulatory partners involved right in the outset, because they have done a spectacular job in building this thing with us so it’s watertight. But we probably lost time having to go around in how that works.

I think we thought it would be easier than it was. There was a lot of painful meetings, governance setup with regulators, including our own internal regulators. It’s been worthwhile but there was certainly more time spent in ensuring that it was completely robust and having to take a whole lot of people on the journey that don’t understand marketing. For example, people saying “but you can’t retarget people with an ad” and it’s sort of like “that’s the basis of Google’s platform guys, it’s been happening for years.” So it was a big education process. 

Media platforms and channels getting entangled in geo-political tensions has certainly been an issue this year, most notably with TikTok – from additional scrutiny in markets including Australia to an outright ban in India. How do you and the team navigate these risks?

We’ve got an amazing direct partnership with TikTok and the first thing is, we never ever would be involved in any platform where we believed data was being misused or it wasn’t being responsible. Additionally, for us, we’re trying to be authentic on the platform. So we’ve been doing hashtag challenges – it’s got a different strategy. 

I guess the bigger question and challenge around TikTok, and a lot of the noise, is you just have to look at Google and Facebook as massive platforms and how they work. The transparency that TikTok are providing versus the big platforms like Google and Facebook is much more. 

Google for us is an incredibly important partner, where we spend a substantial amount of our media [budget] from search to YouTube to display. They’ve probably – in Australia as well – recently had more challenges. 

I think you just don’t put all your eggs in one basket with these new providers. With tech companies, there’s always going to be a view of the political nature of them. If we feel that anyone’s data – or the way that businesses run – compromises our integrity then we will pull it down, but we’ve had similar issues with Google in the past where we had ads appear against hate speech or racism and we’ve had to change all our brand listings around that.

I’m probably a little more relaxed, because we’re testing and learning and not throwing all our eggs in one basket.

There is an emerging school of thought about the importance of ‘share of search’ as a brand growth metric compared to share of voice. What’s your take on this discussion?

We do leverage it but like anything, I don’t think it’s one or the other and you’ve got to look to balance that. You can also argue, as an example, that just using share of voice for investment can also be dangerous. I like a metric that I call ‘share of impact’, which is maybe a little harder to measure.

My biggest competitor Telstra’s media spend is three times more than ours and they also have over 12,000 phone boxes across the country that are branded. So their share of voice is without a doubt more substantial than ours, but we’ve been deemed and awarded to be more efficient and effective. 

Share of search is interesting, but organic search moves up and down based on a whole variety of reasons: How AdWords are treated in people’s websites, people’s SEO strategies versus their SEM strategies. So we absolutely use it as a benchmark and it’s important to us, but it’s not how we would determine the entire success of our brand. 

It goes back to the early days of share of search. We used to say you could buy clicks to any website. We don’t even measure clicks anymore – it’s where they go in, in level two or level three. It’s my same challenge with share of voice. Lots of brands can scream and you’re aware they’re out there, but it doesn’t mean people act on them. So, we’re probably bigger on share of impact.

One that I’d love to measure is ‘share of outcome’, and that is probably where you need to take all these ingredients to build it out.

What do you think will be the single biggest challenge or issue that marketers from all industries and all markets will need to grapple with in 2021?

I would say it’s finding a way to play an authentic and distinctive role in consumers lives. That for me is number one. There’s too many copy-cat communications going out at the moment and there’s a risk of falling into a sea of sameness. The biggest challenge is, how do you stay authentic, relevant and distinctive?



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