It may be the country’s most popular classifieds website – connecting more than 15.3 million customers in Britain each month – but for UK general manager Morten Heuing, Gumtree is far from reaching its potential.
"When I speak to people around the UK, the feedback I’m getting is: ‘it’s functional, it’s a place I can sell something, it’s a place where I can buy something’. That’s falling too short of where the real opportunity is," he explains.
To address the shortfall, and to keep up with the times, Gumtree is overhauling its operation in the UK – the first since the brand debuted in 2000. Changes include a new logo, brand identity and developments across mobile and desktop channels, backed by a 30-second ad that launched in January.
The company is aiming to have every UK adult that uses the internet to be using Gumtree by 2018 (this figure is currently one in three) and Heuing says he wants it to become the "biggest British digital brand name". It is a bold ambition that he believes requires more than stylish branding and improved functionality.
"We are so much more than we get credit for – and we are so much more than we are taking credit for," he says. "We help people find a job, we help people find a place to live, we can help you find a room-mate, we can help you find a car, we can help make you money to pay for the family holiday. We can help everybody sell more and waste less.
"Fundamentally, at the core of what we do is help people to have a better life. Yet we don’t really talk about it. It’s such a wasted opportunity."
That is where PR comes in. Heuing – who joined in July 2015 from parent company eBay where he was senior director of its Classifieds Group in Northern Europe, based in Denmark – sees comms as crucial for publicising these everyday human interest stories. He highlights a widely publicised story from December where staff at a Somerset care home advertised on Gumtree for musicians to ‘jam’ with a 95-year-old resident – and more than 80 people got in touch.
"Getting people to understand what we’re trying to achieve and to talk about this is worth a lot more than just hitting them with an advert. It’s much more impactful and powerful."
It can also counter the stories that continue to surface about people using the website for scams, Heuing adds.
Gumtree is part of eBay Classifieds Group, which has its own comms team. However, the in-house PR set-up in each brand and market is organised locally. To show Heuing’s dedication to PR, Gumtree is in the process of building a "proper in-house team" in the UK under head of marketing Hannah Wilson.
"The first step is to bring in a comms leader, who will start very soon," he says.
So does this signal a scaling down of Gumtree’s use of agencies? "No, quite the contrary," says Heuing. "They can challenge you in the ways you present your company. They sometimes find angles that you haven’t found yourselves."
He cites a Gumtree agency in Denmark that came up with the idea to survey the public about how many household items they owned of value that were not used (the average was 128). "It’s this kind of creative, challenging thinking that I really enjoy in working with a good PR agency."
The site’s UK PR shop is Manifest London, and Heuing is clearly happy with its work on the Gumtree rebrand, which generated 33 pieces of coverage from BBC World News and The Telegraph among others.
Crucially, it had a business impact. In the period after the activity began there was a 62 per cent increase in traffic from social media and 22 million visits to the website in the second week of January. "These are phenomenal numbers. It gives you some idea of how PR can help our business," says Heuing.