The former Carlsberg marketer is about to reposition one of the UK's most famous brands. One wrong step and he, along with the national institution that is Royal Mail, may be bidding the public farewell.
Few brands in any sector have performed quite as poorly as Royal Mail over the past few years. Since liberalisation of the postal- services market in 2006, and the end of Royal Mail's 350-year monopoly, it has lost a series of juicy large-enterprise accounts to rivals. It therefore came as no surprise that the brand registered a £279m operating loss last year.
As a result, Royal Mail is to change the focus of its marketing and communications from the consumer sector toward businesses, partly to remind big companies that it still exists, but, more significantly, to position the brand as the postal operator of choice for small and medium-sized firms.
This repositioning will begin this month with a 'Partners for Growth' campaign targeting the UK's 4.3m SMEs. An above-the-line push, by ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, will comprise TV, press, direct and digital activity.
The drive will direct prospective customers to a 15-step online questionnaire that asks respondents about their business needs. Within two hours, those who have completed the survey will receive a personalised 'growth pack' containing information about how Royal Mail can help them. The idea is to publicise some of the brand's lesser-known business services, including data provision and media consultancy.
Following the departure of Royal Mail marketing director Alex Batchelor this summer, the branding buck now stops with Hings, and the 41-year-old's furrowed brow suggests he is all-too aware of the importance of the forthcoming transformation.
'This is the start of a new era for Royal Mail,' he says. 'We have some fantastic brand values derived from our history,
and some of our competitors would die for the heritage we have. Having said that, we recognise that there are certain parts of the brand we need to blow the dust off.
The current campaign is there to do exactly that.'
Hings accepts that, over the past few years, Royal Mail's primary concern with returning to profitability has led to it lagging behind in innovation, but feels the brand is now ready to take on rivals such as TNT and DHL.
'We have had one of the biggest turn-arounds in corporate history', he adds. 'We are now back in profit, so we can turn our attention to becoming far more customer-focused, investing in our brand and satisfying customer needs.'
In the face of dwindling ad budgets and growing emphasis on digital marketing investment, one of Hings' biggest challenges may be convincing companies of the continuing benefits of direct mail. He is keen to emphasise that, with a claimed 11% share of overall spend, direct mail remains the fourth-biggest marketing tool in the UK. He cannot, however, deny that spending has dipped in recent times, and that it falls to Royal Mail to remind everyone of the format's advantages.
Last month Royal Mail launched 'Matter', a direct initiative which involves the delivery of boxes of free branded goods to consumers. The test mailing, which included a small tub of Play-Doh from Sony and a Nintendo Wii-branded sweatband, was sent to 1000 ABC1 men. In the subsequent three weeks, 40,000 consumers signed up to receive this month's second trial-run. Hings hopes to repeat Matter four to five times next year, and develop the scheme until it has enough brand partners to target more specific consumer groups.
Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of ad agency Ogilvy, has described the venture as one of the 'biggest ideas in direct marketing for years'; it has certainly returned some sorely-lacking interest to the medium.
'We're not saying direct mail is the be-all and end-all, but it still has an important role to play. It has traditionally been based on a rational argument, but can play a crucial role in building loyalty,' says Hings. 'Through the introduction of things like Matter, we're looking to reinvigorate the direct mail market. If it has reduced in size, we can look at improving value and targeting.'
Hings claims that all media campaigns are more effective when combined with below-the-line activity, making it the companion marketing format of choice. To back up his assertion, he cites internal research that claims the medium is the 'most complementary' format.
So where does the humble consumer fit into the new Royal Mail? Last year, the 'universal service' - the brand's obligation to deliver mail to any corner of the country for a flat price - failed to return a profit for the first time, posting a loss of £100m. In May, chief executive Adam Crozier questioned how the service can survive when the only business with a commitment to delivering it is loss-making.
When asked about the role of the universal service, Hings' terse reply - 'it is very much part of our future plans' - betrays his concern at this most delicate of problems; one for which the brand is yet to find a workable solution. Nonetheless, he is unambiguous about the significance of consumers to the brand. 'Consumers are vitally important to our business. All of our business customers are consumers too - you cannot disassociate the two,' he says.
'Our marketing will concentrate predominantly on small and medium-sized business, but consumers will see the campaign. If there is no confidence in the consumer end of Royal Mail, our business customers aren't going to want to work with us. We're not trying to be all things to everyone, we're trying to channel our funds into where we can be most effective.'
Hings admits that the market is only going to become tougher for Royal Mail, particularly when it comes to price-led competition. 'I'm not sure we'll see any new postal operators, but the market is going to get more competitive. We need to make sure we remain as relevant and appealing to our customer base as possible, through listening to our customers and developing more innovative services.'
As a veteran of the brand-driven beer market, Hings is at least prepared for the fact that marketing and brand awareness are becoming ever-more important in the postal-services sector. His most pressing concern will be whether he can help trans-form the clunking, Goliath-like Royal Mail into a more nimble, brand-led entity.
1985-1988: Junior account planner, Cogent Elliott Advertising
1988-1989: Account planning resource manager, Lintas Advertising
1989-1990: Assistant brand manager, Burton Ale
1990-1992: Brand manager, Skol Lager
1992-1993: Senior brand manager, Castlemaine XXXX, Allied Breweries
1993-2000 : Various marketing manager roles, Carlsberg-Tetley
2001-2002: Marketing controller for lagers, Carlsberg-Tetley
2002-2006: Head of brand strategy and advertising, Royal Mail
2006-Present: Director of brand marketing, Royal MailOutside work
Family: Married, three children
Hobbies: Rugby union, wine-collecting, cinema
Holiday destination: South Africa
Last book read: The Secrets of Success at Work, Richard Hall
Last album purchased: The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow
Favourite sports team: Northampton Saints
This article was first published on Marketing