Stephen Noakes, Halifax: How PR drives the debate

Stimulating debate is at the heart of a campaign to encourage people on to the housing ladder.

Stephen Noakes, Halifax: How PR drives the debate
Stephen Noakes, Halifax: How PR drives the debate

A saying you will often hear about first-time buyers is that they are the 'lifeblood of the housing market'. It might feel like a cliche, but it harbours a profound truth: one first-time buyer climbing on the housing ladder will, on average, enable three or four other house moves. It will come as no surprise, then, that finding out more about obstacles experienced by first-time buyers is of great interest to us.

We set out to use PR to inform a marketing response to these issues. We began our research programme, working with Blue Rubicon, with focus groups in Manchester and London. They showed, in addition to worries about size of deposits, that there is real fear about applying for a mortgage. Some did not want the hassle or stress of what they thought was a protracted process, some did not want their credit record blemished if turned down and some were under the impression that banks are not willing to lend. This insight informed a poll of 8,000 20- to 45-year-olds, confirming that many non-homeowners feel they lack the understanding, motivation or confidence to apply for a mortgage.

Halifax accepts eight out of ten applications from first-time buyers but it was clear that negative preconceptions were preventing many from applying. We had to inform potential buyers and help galvanise support from policymakers and industry.

Our response was to create the Halifax First-Time Buyer Pledge - declarations communicating exactly what to expect when applying. We wanted to create a national debate beyond the financial pages. We brought in the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) to analyse the focus group and poll data and prepare a report explaining why an Englishman's home is his castle, and the implications of so many people ruling themselves out of home ownership.

Together with NatCen, we coined the term 'Generation Rent', which described almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of non-homeowners polled, who felt they had no hope of getting on the ladder within the next five years.

PR led the comms campaign. Virtually every national newspaper covered the story along with every major broadcast outlet from Today and BBC Breakfast to Channel 4 News and Newsnight. There were 68 national pieces and 14 broadcast pieces within a fortnight, and thousands of tweets. The campaign had international resonance and we picked up campaigns using Generation Rent to describe the frustrations of young people struggling to get on the housing ladder as far afield as Australia and the US.

We had raised awareness, but wanted to run a truly integrated campaign to further explore issues facing first-time buyers and unearth some solutions.

We convened an expert panel to discuss the research findings and prioritise areas that industry could collectively address. We launched Head Start Home Saver to encourage better saving behaviour and reward those already saving for a deposit. We started a partnership with Experian to advise customers if their applications were unsuccessful, and we developed a guide to the application process, available in branches alongside a new mortgage checklist for advisers.

PR effectively drove the campaign, with these initiatives supported by a combination of print advertising, online support and in-branch literature.

Another common phrase you will hear regarding first-time buyers' problems is that 'there is no magic bullet', and it is true, of course. But education and awareness are part of the solution and a truly integrated campaign can drive that educational agenda.

Stephen Noakes is commercial director at Halifax Mortgages.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

How has your blend of marketing disciplines changed in the past two years?

We have put a greater focus on insight and understanding our customers. Generation Rent marks a change for us in that we used PR to drive debate and prompt discussion with potential customers.

What prompted this change?

On one level, differentiation comes from innovation and innovation has to come from understanding our customers. It was clear we had to engage potential first-time buyers. The best way to do that was to create debate and get people talking about the issues so we can act on their concerns.

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