How the captain captured hearts and minds

Brands can learn a lot from Britain’s newest national treasure, says Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn

The Captain Tom fundraising phenomenon certainly took us all by surprise but what a warm heartfelt surprise it was. I think we all needed to be lifted as a nation during this time of isolation by something truly honest and authentic – something we could embrace and support without suspicion.

It took a WWII veteran with a very simple, yet remarkable, idea to inspire and motivate us to support the NHS which is currently under siege. Captain Tom had started out with the aim of raising £1,000 by walking 100 laps of his garden by his 100th birthday on 30th April. As I write the amount he has raised is continuing to increase but we are currently at more than £28 million, donated by over 1.3 million people. I am sure by the time of print this amount will be nudging the £30 million mark!

Most remarkable of all is that the donations and support cuts across all demographics – we saw young children, for example, launching a social media campaign to create birthday cards for Captain Tom. This is truly a tribal movement and when something like this happens all statistics like age, gender, income, no longer conform to traditional parameters.

So what was it that sparked the huge snowball effect – and what can we learn from it from a marketing communications perspective? Authenticity surely has a big part to play. Here is a person who clearly has the very highest regard for the NHS, driven by his experience of how his wife was treated during her last days and his own most recent hip replacement. In particular, it was the people attending to his needs that made the biggest impression on him and inspired him to find his own special way to thank them.

There is no doubt that, over the years, the NHS as an institution has drawn many criticisms from all spectrums of society for many different reasons. This is no different to any business and it will always be the personal interactions and relationships that leave an impression and builds trust. Ergo the phrase: “people buy people”.

It was that simple for Captain Tom. There was no big “campaign” that he was responding to – he just wanted to do something nice for the NHS in return for the care he had been shown. But what triggered the enormous public reaction?

There are many elements at play to generate this level of community support. Firstly, this was a truly authentic and heart-warming story without any PR spin. People from all walks of life embraced the idea of this spirited and elegant older person, who had clearly already given a lot for his country during the war, doing something very simple for a big purpose. It was uncomplicated, it was authentic and it was honest.

Of course the focus on the NHS due to the COVID-19 pandemic has raised everyone’s awareness of the superhuman efforts by everyone in the profession and related support services. Supporting Captain Tom was one way for people to feel they were contributing to this worthy cause and, by doing so, they became part of this wonderful story. (And, by the way, I have a sneaky feeling this may well become an annual event, well after we’ve seen the back end of this virus.)

As a brand marketing person, I am always fascinated by these phenomenal stories that come out of nowhere and so quickly gather pace. It’s useful to understand the emotions that initiate such amazing responses and discover what they teach us about our own communications. Invariably I end up in the same place… these things gain traction because of the simplicity of the idea, the honesty in its purpose and the authenticity in its delivery. It is this seemingly simple concept few brands are able to grasp and we see, again and again, a tendency to overly complicate a message with too many layers of superfluous information in an attempt to get our attention.

The other aspect to the Captain Tom’s stratospheric rise to fame was to the speed with which the story spread – and with which people could react. Digital media meant that once the story was picked up outside Captain Tom’s family and friends, it swept very quickly across news and social media channels. The Justgiving page meant that people could donate quickly – no need to write a cheque and find an envelope and stamp to get it in the post, just a few clicks and you were done (the only issue being the demand to give was so great that it was difficult to get on the site at times).

Brands can spend a fortune in trying to get a campaign to “go viral” like this, often without much success. Perhaps we all need to take a step back and think about what Captain Tom’s steps forward tell us about human nature, our sense of community and how we respond to challenging times.