Why Huawei is still making ads with BBC Worldwide in times of bad news

Huawei

Controversies have plagued Huawei over the past year. The BBC has been among the many news outlets to heavily cover its troubles, including a Panorama investigation into the business. But that hasn’t stopped the smartphone maker investing ad dollars with the broadcaster.

Huawei will launch an extensive marketing campaign later this year that’s been created by BBC StoryWorks, the branded content agency for the broadcaster’s commercial arm. This campaign will look to “tell the history” of a Chinese company under intense scrutiny from politicians and business leaders with work set to run across BBC Worldwide platforms.

This year saw concerns voiced globally that the smartphone maker allowed its technology to be used by the Chinese government to spy on people. This was heightened in May when President Trump signed an executive order to let the Treasury Department name Huawei as a national security threat, meaning US companies must receive approval before doing business with it.

Shortly after, Google announced that it would also no longer work with the firm.

The impending campaign will be an attempt to “clarify what Huawei is, where it came from and where it's going to go,” according to Xavier Wong, global creative director for Huawei.

“What we're trying to do is take the path we didn’t' take earlier, which is to talk about who we really are to prevent the spread of misinformation.”

It's not the first time Huawei has worked with BBC StoryWorks. Over the past three years, it's briefed the broadcaster's branded content team on projects of increasing size as it looked to build brand awareness globally. Previous campaigns had focused on product and the engineering of its hardware, but with the BBC Huawei began to insert itself into stories around themes like “human excellence,” “exploring” and “striving to be extraordinary”.

Over those three years, it has slowly shifted the dial on sentiment metrics. Measurement of the effectiveness of ads came by way of the BBC’s facial-coding and eye-tracking tools, where content is viewed by a global panel of 12,000 members who are analysed through their desktop webcams.

“We saw between 60% - 80% shift towards things like viewing Huawei as an innovative company, as sustainable, viewing it as a company that connects people,” explained Nicola Eliot, head of content for BBC StoryWorks in APAC. “There was an 800% shift in brand awareness, which was the key metric.”

The tech company will be hoping the next phase of partnership with the StoryWorks team can deliver the same results and get it back on track following the past year’s’ challenges.

According to YouGov, the company saw its brand perception scores take a hit in Singapore over following Trump's restrictions being implemented.

As of June 2019, its brand buzz – a measure of what people have heard about a brand – was at a record low with a score of just 4.4 having been at a record high of 36.6 just a few months earlier.

People were also found to be less likely to recommend Huawei as it suffered its lowest-ever “recommend” score of 17.1, a 11.9 point drop from its peak score of 29.0. Brand consideration scores also fell from 32.4 to 24.7, a drop of 7.7 points.

However, the challenge for the BBC is that is cannot, legally, address any of the specific issues or concerns that have hit the news agenda in the branded content campaign.

“The BBC is a news organisation first so [StoryWorks] don't do anything that covers current affairs or tell a story that has anything to do with what's going on with Huawei [in the news],” explained Eliot.

“The BBC has an iron curtain between news and commercial side of things. Everything that [StoryWorks] does has to go through legal compliance as well as a board of people to ensure that those relationships are completely separate and there's no influence from one side or the other. We're not allowed to touch any topic which is being featured in current affairs, regardless of the authenticity. We have a blanket ban, we can't focus on it or comment on it.”

The campaign will instead focus on the history of Huawei. Eliot and her team have gone through its extensive archives and interviewed employees from across the decades to put a spotlight on the “core values” of the original company. “There's a lot of mystery surrounding the company which makes the storytelling of it really interesting,” she said.

Given the events of the past year, Eliot wouldn’t have been surprised if a brand in a similar situation had walked away from its ties to a news organisation covering negative reports. It’s happened in the past and will happen in the future.

However, she applauded the “bravery” of Huawei for being “unafraid” of breaking news and “understanding” the BBC has a job to do.

“There’s a great level of mutual respect. As a news channel, it has its priorities and as a brand owner, we have our priorities. Compliance is really important. We do appreciate BBC in the way they manage such a delicate manner,” added Wong.

Huawei could of course have opted to work with a traditional advertising agency partner, both for this campaign and for the films that have been produced by StoryWorks over the past three years. Wong said it’s an interesting time in the client-agency relationship and Huawei, like others, is trying to work out where branded content specialists fit within the wider roster mix.

The way Wong divides the work comes down to a matter of speed. If it needs something turned around quickly and with a “sharp” response it will go directly to an ad agency but for any projects with “the luxury of time” he would go to the BBC.

“The BBC have the economy of scale that the ad agencies don't have. Ad agencies have the agility that the BBC doesn't have They both have their own strengths and are relevant,” he said.

BBC StoryWorks is now a significant contributor to BBC Worldwide. The company announced that preliminary end of year results that 2018/19 was its best year ever for profitability as it saw a 4% sales increase for both advertising and content distribution.

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