Why partnerships and people are key to building The Big Issue brand

Magazine's marketing manager shares how external partnerships have been key to extending the brand's reach and building engagement

Few charities put the people they help at the apex of their branding strategy. But for The Big Issue, those homeless or disadvantaged people who don the bright yellow vest don’t just sell the fortnightly magazine, they are also the public expression of the organisation’s ethos as a social enterprise.

That ethos has enabled The Big Issue to forge solid partnerships in Australia since it was first sold here in 1996. But in an era where options and strategies for corporates are expanding constantly, keeping them engaged is growing increasingly challenging.

Hence for The Big Issue’s marketing manager, Emma O’Halloran, keeping partners closely involved is essential.

“We have really been fortunate to have some longstanding partners,” she tells CMO. “And they don’t just get involved in the one aspect of the business. They are very involved across a whole range of initiatives. We provide opportunities for our corporates to really get in and feel the pulse and be part of what we do, week in week out.”

One of the most successful has been the CEO Selling program. Each February, about 100 high-profile CEOs don the yellow vest to stand alongside vendors and sell the magazine.

“When we look at who is buying the magazine from the vendors, it’s business people in the CBD areas that are going into their jobs,” O’Halloran says.

One of the highest profile CEOs has been Telstra’s Andy Penn, who sold the magazine outside the company’s Elizabeth Street HQ in Melbourne.

“While we did in the past tend to use more celebrities and high-profile people, having business leaders stand outside their office and encourage their workforce to buy a magazine off them really breaks down the stereotypes around what The Big Issue is about,” O’Halloran says. “Many people commented that they bought the magazine for the very first time because there was that interaction with their CEO.”

Building a diversity strategy

While its vendors may be the public face of the organisation, in 2010 The Big Issue took note of a discrepancy in this strategy.

“Women who were homeless of disadvantaged weren’t seeing it as an attractive option,” O’Halloran says. “It didn’t take us long to understand that asking women, many of whom have become homeless due to issues around domestic violence, to very publicly stand on street corners and sell the magazine is not something they found as a satisfactory option, because they didn’t feel safe or secure.”

The solution was to use that untapped female workforce to staff The Big Issue’s subscription service. Each fortnight, homeless and disadvantaged women are employed in the company’s offices to pick and pack copies of the magazine that are sent out to corporate and individual subscribers around Australia. O’Halloran says more than 150 women have been employed in the Women’s Subscription Enterprise since 2010.

“Often, they are someone who has come to us from a shelter or different service agency, who really just needs that hand up to step back into the workforce, and need to improve their confidence or learn new skills,” she says. “And we are able to provide them with paid employment to offer that service out to our subscribers.”

Subscription copies of The Big Issue can be found in places such as the Qantas Club and numerous NAB branches.

“We have big companies such as NAB, Australia Post, Westpac and a bunch of law firms subscribing for their offices,” O’Halloran says. “But we also have some innovative companies doing some unique things with their subscriptions.

“Recruitment company, Affix, is offering every new candidate they hire a subscription to the magazine, and are just about to tick over to the 100th subscription. It is a really unique initiative, and companies are finding some innovative ways to use the magazine, to either send to clients or use amongst their staff. And importantly, they are changing lives while doing it.”

The Women’s Subscription Enterprise has gone on to become a fully-fledged service offering for The Big Issue.

“We do outsource work for corporate clients who need some more manual hands to put things together, such as assisting a call centre environment, or even picking and packing showbags,” O’Halloran says. “So we are tapping into that social procurement area we know many companies are looking to use.”

Extending the partnership

The Big Issue has also been able to call on another of its partners, energy company Origin, to assist in keeping the subscription model growing.

“What happens now is every fortnight we have Origin volunteers come in and sit alongside our women and place phone calls to subscribers, to just check in that they are enjoying their magazine,” O’Halloran says. “If they do lapse they get a phone call, and we make sure we do all we can to continue to receive their support.”

The Big Issue also receives significant support from the media industry, including approximately $1 million in advertising space offered pro bono by media agency, Carat.

“I don’t have a big marketing budget at all,” O’Halloran says. “In fact, it’s almost next to nothing. But we have some great marketing partners that really do give us some great value.”

The company has generated strong coverage of recent events such as its 20th and 21st birthdays. It also has a growing social media and digital presence, and is putting on its first dedicated digital marketing coordinator.

The Big Issue has also begun working with the Melbourne-based agency Town Square on a new campaign which will launch in the new year.

“We’re just making sure we stay relevant for the vendors on the street and the customers, so they know they are going to get great product every fortnight,” O’Halloran says.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu   

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