The CMO Show:
Louise Cummins on marketing, innovation...

Louise Cummins, Marketing and Digital Innovations Director at H&R Block sits down with host Mark Jones to discuss how marketers can tap into the zeitgeist to tell remarkable stories.

A marketer’s ability to ‘read the room’ is a key skill needed to communicate a timely and relevant message, especially during periods of disruption.

So, how well do you understand the zeitgeist or the ever-changing social/cultural/economic mood of the times? 

Louise Cummins, Marketing and Digital Innovations Director at H&R Block, believes marketers need to know how to connect their audience to the right message at the right time.

H&R Block’s pertinent response to the challenges faced by customers during COVID-19 came in the form of their latest TVC, and supporting digital content. The campaign recognises the “big questions” customers have around COVID-19 tax time changes, and demonstrates H&R Block’s capability to provide trusted answers.

“One thing that really resonated for me this year has been questions. There are so many changes and so many questions people have about their tax. A lot of clients are concerned and stressed out at the moment, so I loved that showing empathy could really help them out,” Louise says.

“We found interestingly enough about 50% of people coming to our website wanted content. So we’re actually developing a lot more content to support those tax questions and actually suit every layer of what people would be interested in.”

With search behaviour across H&R Block’s website shifting significantly as a result of the pandemic, Louise encourages marketers to collaborate across teams to better understand customer needs, and communicate relevant messages. 

“About 60% of our overall media spend will be digital. So moving from a classic traditional TV spend to digital. So much more on YouTube and other online platforms, as well as podcast advertising, which is a fantastic medium to be part of,” Louise says.  

“We develop all our plans very collaboratively, and bring our PR team, the creative, the media, and even our fulfilment company together so that we can leverage some of the wins that are happening.” 

Tune into this episode of The CMO Show to find out how marketers can tap into the zeitgeist to tell stories that connect with the hearts and minds of their customers.

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The CMO Show production team

Producers – Charlotte Goodwin & Stephanie Woo

Audio Engineers – Tom Henderson & Daniel Marr

Got an idea for an upcoming episode or want to be a guest on The CMO Show? We’d love to hear from you: cmoshow@filteredmedia.com.au.

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Transcript:

Host: Mark Jones

Guest: Louise Cummins

Mark Jones:                 
Zeitgeist is one of my favourite words. It comes from German philosophy – defined as the intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of a time in history.  Today we think of it as ‘the spirit of the times’. And for marketers, it’s a key skill. We pride ourselves on the ability to read the proverbial room. Now it matters to us because it helps us craft the right message for the right time. We look to connect the right emotion with the right message. So the big question, in these challenging times, is how well do you understand today’s zeitgeist? How can you become better informed to tell stories that connect with hearts and minds? 

Mark Jones:                   
Hello there! Mark Jones here and it’s great to have you with us again on The CMO Show. Our guest today is Louise Cummins, Marketing and Digital Innovations Director at H&R Block. We’re in the new financial year, so it’s a great time to speak to someone in the tax business! Louise has a really diverse marketing background – having worked for tech companies, Fujifilm, MGM Studios, Australia Post, World Vision, Optus – the list goes on and on. But importantly to me, she has a genuine, palpable passion for innovation and storytelling – you can feel it when you talk to her.  

Mark Jones:                     
We had a great conversation about how marketers can adapt to the immense change brought about by COVID-19. And in particular, why it’s important to tell the stories about how organisations are letting go of the past, listening to customer needs, and making changes for the better. I really hope you enjoy the interview. Let’s hear what Louise has to say. 

Mark Jones:
So Louise, before we get too far into all of your marketing expertise, one of the other things I’m interested to know, you’ve written a book!

Louise Cummins:
I’ve always had a passion for doing passion projects. So I’m a big believer in continuing that creativity outside of work, because I actually think it brings a lot to your actual job, especially in marketing you need that extra layer of creativity.

Louise Cummins:
For me, my story was that I actually wrote a book for my son, Lachlan. The two minute synopsis of what happened was he was diagnosed with autism when he was around two, and I had spent so much time in different therapies and all the rest of it and one day we were both exhausted and he was watching Trolls, and he started singing and he started singing True Colours, “True colours are beautiful like a rainbow.” And I realised, I just sort of stopped and I went, “I’m trying to make my son black and white, when he’s actually really colourful.” And it was just all about, “what is his true colours?” And it really just changed my world, because I was like, “I need to actually be part of his world rather than trying to force him to be part of mine.”

Louise Cummins:
Because when you first get the diagnosis there’s a lot of negativity, so I went on a quest to try and understand all the positives and understand all of these amazing people from Einstein to Michelangelo, Lachlan loves surfing, so the surfing legend Clay Marzo is actually on the spectrum. And so I wrote a book, and it was a book for him, called A Different Kind of Brilliant. And it was all about how amazing people have changed the world for the better and he can too, and not to see it as a limitation.

Louise Cummins:
It was just amazing, all these people from my networks helped out, from education consultants, to PR experts, to the printers helped out, I had designers help out, all doing it for pro bono, which was amazing. And then before I knew it went global. So I really just did it for him.

Louise Cummins:
Then not so long ago I got an email from a woman in Ohio and her son, who was 10, sadly had wanted to kill myself because he hated his autism and she gave him the book and he said, “For the first time I feel proud of who I am,” and I thought, “Well, that’s a drop the mic moment.” So for me it was if I made a nice Christmas present for Lachlan, the fact that it went global and outsold all my expectations in six weeks was fantastic. But that boy in Ohio was a drop the mic moment.

Louise Cummins:
So for me, I learnt so much in the process. To back myself creatively, putting myself out there, and also understanding how important my networks were. I didn’t really realise the value of my networks until people wanted to help out during the time.  It was a really lovely project because it actually harnessed a lot of things and I was very lucky because I had a supportive management team at H&R Block that also helped me with bringing it to life, so I’m very lucky.

Mark Jones:
Wow, what a remarkable story and a remarkable impact, I’ve got to say. How do you think that’s informed your work as a marketer? Clearly storytelling is at the heart of what we do.

Louise Cummins:
I think really getting into the mind of that seismic shift of actually trying to get him to be in my world versus me understanding about his world, I think that’s probably the biggest shift for me was just as an individual getting into the minds of our clients.

Louise Cummins:
Often I actually have people on my board, if we’re having a meeting we’ll draw the people out.  At least having a presence of those people. I’ll give a really quick example, we were looking at one digital innovation and it was beautiful. But one of the personas was a farmer from Dubbo. Now, my family’s from out there, they’re digitally enabled, but I was just like, “This is so complex.” So it might be fine for Sebastian in Glebe, but Bill from Dubbo doesn’t want all those bells and whistles, he wants the more practical stuff.

Louise Cummins:
So for me it was about getting into the mind of, “What does Sebastian really want? What does Mary want?” And those key personas and getting myself, exactly like it was with Lachlan, into his head, not actually just saying what I think they want.

Mark Jones:
Yeah. I can really relate to that because my nephew is also on the spectrum and my sister, bless her, she’s really engaged in it, much like yourself, and story boarding is a big part of the day. “So, first we’re going to here with this picture, and then we’ll go to uncle Mark’s, and then we’re going to swim, and then we’re going to do this.” So the visual aspect of communication really comes to the fore and I’ve seen that to be particularly powerful in his life. So yeah, I can relate to that. It’s a really important thing.

Mark Jones:
And if we think about it as storytellers remembering too that a picture tells 1,000 words, but we also got to say, “What’s the meaning that’s communicated by that picture? How do they feel? What’s the response that we’re expecting through that?” And it really does shape your understanding of how we can get ideas across.

Louise Cummins:
And interestingly enough, to the point where Lachlan felt really understood and really loves the book, he actually helped finish the animated short film of the slightly older version, so that’s gonna be released in a couple of months time. But it was lovely to actually see him part of the actual story process.

Mark Jones:
Fantastic. Well, let’s talk about another topic, of course we are living in the COVID-19 times. What kind of impact has this had on your business?

Louise Cummins:
For us, there was a lot of things that it really impacted. One, we actually onboard about 2,500 tax staff, associates, every year, and that was all face to face. We actually had to go directly into an online model.

Louise Cummins:
The other thing was of course I had all my marketing campaign and everything bedded down for this year and the campaign wasn’t right for reading the room. So we had to throw all of that out and start again. So I had to do a new TV campaign, we had to throw out all our plans for local area marketing events.

Louise Cummins:
But, out of all of that, the actual biggest one was around how we were going to actually change our operating model. So we have about 470 offices and service about 750,000 clients, all face to face. And it’s one of those complex transactions, so people generally do like to come in and see face-to-face because they want to grab all their paperwork and sort of have that interaction.

Louise Cummins:
So we had to quickly change and adapt to whatever stage of that lockdown looks like. So we had to put in new digital systems to enable people to actually upload and download their documents, we had to actually change it so that we had potentially a lot of associates working from home. So then what did that look like from an info perspective, from an IT perspective, and obviously then the communications with our field. And all of that has actually prepared ourselves quite well now because there was a group of offices in Melbourne that had to be locked down. So actually all our prep has paid off.

Mark Jones:
We’ll talk about your marketing in a minute, but from a business perspective things really have changed haven’t they, in terms of customer and small business attitudes towards accountants.  For some people previously you could do a lot of it yourself, but now there are so many unknowns and so many more complexities, it’s actually one of the best times to be an accountant.

Louise Cummins:
Well, yes. We’ve seen such a surge of traffic and we’ve actually created a lot of content around all the changes. And actually we’re very lucky, we get a huge amount of PR and all our PR is around responding to all of those changes. So I think you’re exactly right. I think that more than ever people are so confused about what does their stimulus payment look like, how much can they claim working from home, all of those things. Where before they might’ve been on the tipping point of maybe doing it themselves, this year it’s very different. We’re actually seeing a massive surge of people needing our services.

Mark Jones:
Now, it’s interesting, the different responses brands have had to this season that we’ve been through and some have just stopped spending altogether, others have continued, and we’ve just seen all sorts of things in between. What’s the outlook for you? You mentioned a new TVC. How are you working with your peers and management really to set expectations about what can be achieved in this season with marketing?

Louise Cummins:
It’s very hard, I think all the models are thrown out the window. Nobody actually really knows. And I remember there’s lots of interesting data coming out from the car industry, some brands are actually going really well, some aren’t. It’s actually a really interesting time to actually navigate the probability of what outcomes will be.

Louise Cummins:
For us, we had our budgets pre approved so we had that locked in. So there wasn’t a huge amount of conversations around changing that. And to your point, I think if anything, there was an expectation that there would probably more a need of our service. The challenge was, potentially, the productivity would be slightly less if it was all done remotely because there’s added complications of different calls and uploading data, and all sorts of things.

Mark Jones:
The Gartner’s Annual CMO Survey has come out and topping the list in terms of the most vital marketing capability in 2020 is now brand strategy. H&R Block, I would suggest has an enormous level of salience in the minds of consumers so really thinking about your brand strategy is probably one of the things that you’re most focused on right now.

Louise Cummins:
Absolutely. We have actually over 91% brand awareness and actually next year we’ll be in the market for 50 years. So it’s a bit of an unusual kind of analogy, I see us as being the McDonald’s of tax and one of the things I have to do is actually then transform like McDonald’s did to McCafé. So one of the things that we are known for, we are very well known, we’re well respected for the product we do, but what we need to do is actually move more into actually demonstrating and telling people about that level of expertise we’ve got.

Louise Cummins:
So that is kind of that repositioning from the McDonald’s to the McCafé. So what does that actually look like and what are those extra services that we can give, especially as we are trying to attract next generation through. So that’s a big part of my role as well as actually what does that actually look like from a digital enablement perspective, and what are the extra tools we’re giving to that next generation. So the branding is actually really important. How do you make sure that we continue that loyalty but also transition it to being that next level of expertise.

Mark Jones:
How do you connect the H&R Block story to a sense of purpose in the community? And how important has that been in this current season?

Louise Cummins:
Caring and that support is actually obviously a very generic approach, but that is really the essence of what we do as a brand. I remember when I was first being orientated, I met this lovely lady. She was a consultant and been with us for 30 years. And she’s looked after three generations of clients. And it was just lovely hearing her story. She was so passionate about supporting those families at each of the different stages of their careers, and setting up their first investment properties, and whatever. But it was actually really lovely to hear that, that she was really integral to being part of that community.

Louise Cummins:
I love those stories of hearing how people have actually supported people throughout their journey. So yeah, there’s a lot of stories that come out of it, but at the heart of it is actually our clients.

Mark Jones:
Let me ask you about the Big Questions campaign. You mentioned that you’d had to do this pivot because out goes the old plan, in comes this new thing. Tell me about the idea and the creative inspiration behind it.

Louise Cummins:
There’s a lot on the internet about how generic the COVID-19 advertising is. I was just like, “What can we actually own? What can we really own?” And the other challenge was how do you read the room? Because at that stage things were changing every week. At one stage there was rumours that we were going to be held up for 18 months, and one week it was all about everybody singing on webcams together, and the next week it was all about things are opening up again.

Louise Cummins:
There were a couple of ideas that if we’d actually gone ahead with them, would have been completely wrong to where we are right now in July. So for me when I saw it, one thing that really resonated for me this year has been questions. That’s the thing that every single person’s got about everything in their life at the moment is what are the big questions.

Louise Cummins:
So I thought it was a really nice territory to play with, and then actually bed it in to those big tax questions, because there are so many changes and so many questions people have with their tax. So I thought it was a territory that played to that real being empathetic because there is a lot of clients concerned and stressed out at the moment so I loved that empathy, but it also really played to what was their biggest issues at the moment which was, they’re confused and we can really help them out.

Mark Jones:
I wanted to ask you too, you mentioned reading the room and the other kind of fancy word is zeitgeist. I’m a big fan of that because I think, for marketers, if there’s one thing we’ve got to be able to do, it’s that. It’s that mixture of data and gut. So how do you read the room? Have you got any tips? And what did you do in this context?

Louise Cummins:
So in this context we had to play with a number of different scenarios of what that would look like. And one of the ideas that came back was more around what people were doing at home. So when you look at the projection, that only would work if we were still all in lockdown. So for me I had to go, “Okay, what are the different options that July might look like?” and then having a look at each of the different creative territories and see if they actually fitted in to those different scenarios. And that’s why I thought this one did.

Louise Cummins:
The other one was the role of humour. Which is an interesting one as well. People love to have a bit of humour. At the moment people are not necessarily wanting humour about this type of service, they just wanna know, “I’m feeling stressed out. I might’ve just lost my job. I’m getting these new stimulus payments, I don’t know what all of that means.” So all of that sort of stuff, I felt like you needed to make sure that our tone was right. So there were a couple of territories that I thought potentially played more into that comedic angle, and it could have worked, but I was worried that it potentially could’ve fallen quite flat.

Mark Jones:
Yeah. Unless you’re a comedian, humor’s pretty tricky.

Louise Cummins:
Exactly. With that said actually, we’re doing something with Will and Woody who is on the ARN Network, and we’re actually doing weird and wonderful things people can claim with their tax. So that’s kind of interesting, but its based more around their platform, rather than us being the joke tellers.

Mark Jones:
Yeah, no, no. That’s a trusted pair of hands.

Louise Cummins:
Exactly, exactly.

Mark Jones:
That’s really interesting to hear. So what’s your view on how you expect as a marketer these narratives to change? Where do you think it might go?

Louise Cummins:
I think at this stage with more and more people being laid off, I think actually people want just more content. So I think if anything it’ll play more into what level of expertise we can actually give. You would be hearing it yourself, the amount of people on a daily basis that seem to be losing their jobs, I don’t see that this narrative will change this tax season.

Louise Cummins:
Where it will be interesting is we are having our 50th anniversary next year, and so we’re playing around with what does that look like, I think that will be very interesting to see where that narrative plays out, because obviously a 50th birthday celebration is tonally quite different. But for this tax season, I think the track that we’re on and the amount of content that we’re building to support those questions I can’t see it won’t be appropriate throughout the tax season.

Mark Jones:
And then how do you expect you’ll need to change the types of stories that you tell? Because you mentioned lots more content, so clearly there’s lots of different ways to spin that one.

Louise Cummins:
So we found interestingly enough about 50% of people coming to our website wanted content. So we’re actually developing a lot more content to actually suit every layer of what people would be interested in. So we actually set up a tax academy. 

Louise Cummins:
So everything from classic deductions that you can have in your particular occupation, to tips and tricks if you’re an Airtasker. That will be kind of really our focus but I would actually like to push more into storytelling moving forward into next year, but this year is probably going to be more information rich.

Mark Jones:
Yeah. Well if you’re familiar with the Google hero, hub, and hygiene model. So hero pieces would be like your TVC, that hub where it’s actually for more complicated stories, and then hygiene is a lot of this, particularly SEO driven, how to, what should I do, so it seems like you’re really investing in that.

Louise Cummins:
Yeah, very heavily on the SEO part. And the next layer probably between, if you’re using that model, would be around our social, so we’re going to be using a lot more of those social stories to build out that next tier.

Mark Jones:
So what’s your digital strategy like? How are you conceiving that? What are the sorts of things that will drive success do you think?

Louise Cummins:
Well now we’re actually shifting to probably about 60% of our overall media spend will be digital. So moving from very much a classic traditional TV spend, to moving more to digital that’s also online video. So much more in YouTube, and all the other online video platforms. We’re doing a lot more with native this year. We found native actually performs really well for us.

Louise Cummins:
We obviously do display a lot of focus on search and as you mentioned SEO. This year we’re doing more with radio, we really wanted to test some radio, I’m a big fan of radio. And for the first time we’re actually doing podcasts. So doing some podcast advertising.

Louise Cummins:
I was shocked to hear that 34% of Australians now listen to podcasts up to five hours a week, which is a fantastic medium to be a part of. That was from PHD so maybe you’ve got more up-to-date stats, but that was quite interesting to me.

Mark Jones:
Yeah. Therein lies one of our big passion topics here at The CMO Show and Filtered Media. The uptake has been just enormous of the podcast medium. And I think we’re going to see more and more paid investment behind podcasts. It’s still early days from a tech point of view I think, but that’s an exciting thing to hear that you’re doing. So, well done.

Louise Cummins:
Yes. And also a lot of PR we’re doing as well. We spend a lot of money on PR, but it actually pays so much dividends for us.

Mark Jones:
So when you think about tying all of those things together how are you measuring it and tracking it? What are the sorts of techniques that you’ve got going?

Louise Cummins:
Sure. So we’ve got a pretty robust digital tracking to actually understand where in the conversion funnel we’re playing well and where we should change. So we’ve got an online booking system, so that enables us to actually then drill down intro into that conversion funnel really well. And then we do brand tracking, so we actually do brand research as well and attitudinal research at the end of each of our campaigns as well.

Louise Cummins:
So we’re quite lucky in that we’ve actually got some really good tracking techniques. And in terms of that alignment, to make sure that all the teams are aligned. So I think that was kind of another part of that question.

Louise Cummins:
We actually develop all the plans very collaboratively, so between PR, and the creative, and the media, and even our fulfilment company, we actually bring them all together and it’s very much a collaborative team environment. And then we also make sure that we share everybody’s plans with each other. So it’s really nice so that they can then sort of leverage some of the wins that are happening.

Mark Jones:
What’s your view then on the future? How will you conceive of next year’s budgets and where you’ll put your efforts?

Louise Cummins:
Yeah, so my biggest focus will be around all those digital innovations. So we’re looking at product extensions, our online products, what does that look like, how does AI work with that, how do we actually provide more services to give greater tools and greater freedom to our clients to make the process even easier.

Louise Cummins:
And then how do we actually engage – especially the younger generation – more digitally? So that’s going to be my focus. There’s a lot of things in the pipeline that I’m excited about. So yeah that’s my going to be my number one focus.

Mark Jones:
It’s great to hear your insights.

Louise Cummins:
I just really appreciate being here. I think this is why your show serves such a great purpose, is actually listening to all these different marketers from different professions, because I think we can all learn so much from each other. And that is a really interesting thing moving forward is I want to hear and continue hearing what other industries are doing well, and how they’re doing well during this time.

Mark Jones:
Louise Cummins has been my guest today on The CMO Show. It’s been a pleasure to have you and all the best.

Louise Cummins:
Appreciate it. Thank you.

Mark Jones:                 
So that was Louise Cummins. I tell you what, it never gets old having a cracking yarn with a fellow storyteller! You just can’t stop us when we get wound up! A couple of things from this interview conversation we had. 

Mark Jones:                     
The first one, is read widely. This is a really important point, and often we can kind of forget it. We get caught up in our own worlds, but we need to get inspiration for storytelling, creative projects and marketing campaigns from all sorts of places. For me, that means, and it’s a good reminder, to look beyond your normal kind of hunting areas. If you don’t watch documentaries, give them a go. If you haven’t read a good novel in a while, try that. If you haven’t sort of read in areas that are a bit off-piste for you, perhaps if it is a different perspective on the world, try that because we need these inputs to become better storytellers and we can apply our skills to all sorts of environments. 

Mark Jones:                     
Second is this, we’ve heard a lot about all the changes going on in  business and workplace environments, of course, we’re working at home, some of us are coming back in, and a mix of the two. But remember that from a storytelling perspective, from a marketing and comms perspective, we’ve got to have the right message at the right time. We’ve got to continually tailor and adapt our messaging so we suit the zeitgeist. We’ve got to keep it fresh so that we can connect with people, with how they are thinking and feeling everyday. And so, that actually might mean that you’ve got to change your strategy. Instead of these long range, big-picture things that you are going to set and forget, and roll it for a year, we can’t do that anymore, we’ve got to stay current and make sure that we are connecting with people in meaningful ways. 

Mark Jones:                     
So, with those two things in mind, just before I go, if you do have another topic or guest that you think we should consider  – drop the team a line at cmoshow@filteredmedia.com.au. We welcome your feedback, and we do get some good feedback and lots of pitches. So keep them coming!  Also like, share, comment, do all those things on the socials. Get the message out there. We want to continue to do great work and let other people know about it. That’s it for this episode of The CMO Show. As always, it’s been great to have you with us. Until next time.

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