Home Group is one of the biggest housing associations in the UK, managing over 55,000 properties. Yet after years of growth and acquisition, the brand recognised that it needed to refocus itself and evolve its customer experience.
Rosie Du Rose, Executive Director of Operations talks about how the organisation is reinventing itself for the future…
Please explain your role at Home Group...
I am ultimately accountable for the delivery of all our services at Home Group.
This involves running the day to day operations through 2,500 colleagues who deal directly with our three key customer groups. Those groups being supported, rented and leasehold housing.
As one of the largest social housing companies in the UK, why were you struggling to achieve brand awareness?
Home Group has a very proud and long history as a housing association, going back over 80 years. However, like any large business with longevity, it has gone through various iterations, acquiring new businesses and diversifying along the way. We’ve also had a number of different names/brands as a result of growth and acquisition.
As an organisation we needed to take a step back and consider how we delivered a totally coherent story to all of our customers, colleagues and stakeholders
We needed to check that our messaging still resonated with the people we are doing business with today - whether that’s consumers, commissioners, stakeholders or key partners, such as the government and the NHS.
What challenges does the social housing space pose for companies like Home Group when it comes to communicating your offering?
I am proud of the social housing sector and what we are doing, although it can be very different to other consumer sectors and brands as the products and services are sometimes unfamiliar.
However, once in the sector, you start to understand why our services are so critical to people - especially those on low income or people who have vulnerabilities and care needs.
There is a real challenge for the social housing sector to sell its brand, as well as and contribution it makes to the society and the wider economy.
Our channels to market are often indirect too, which presents challenges...
Anyone who applies for a social/affordable house usually goes through a local authority process and bids for a number of houses from numerous providers. They aren’t necessarily aware of the organisation providing that home, or the differences between providers.
What prompted you to take action and find a specialist partner to work on your brand?
The opportunity to work with Brand Vista resulted from the need to clarify who we were what we were about, and ensure that this fully aligned to our new 2022 strategy.
Home Group is a large commercial business and we needed to leverage our group brand within the sector.
We needed to use our brand to form new partnerships outside of the sector in order to meet our ambition and strategic goals. Communicating the strength of our business and promoting our reliability, innovation and integrity is key if we want to continue to form new strategic alliances...
What were the main challenges that Brand Vista identified before starting to develop your brand?
The fact that many people didn’t know who we were. We are a national provider working in over 200 local authorities across the country, and yet we didn’t have a well known ‘presence’ with general consumers or key stakeholders.
One of our brands, Stonham, had more leverage than the Group brand, meaning that the Group was not necessarily seen as a preferred partner when it came to looking at new and creative housing solutions.
For example, if the NHS need to find temporary re-ablement accommodation for people leaving hospital, I don’t think they would necessarily have considered a Housing Association. Yet we have 55,000 homes across the country and can provide bespoke housing accommodation for exactly this type of customer.
We needed to raise our profile.
The agreed brand positioning was ‘building brilliant relationships that put people first’. Why did this resonate with the company?
When we began working with Brand Vista some 18 months ago, we knew that we were very good at the relationship part and needed to do more of it if we were to survive and thrive within a volatile housing sector.
Changes in legislation and regulation mean we continually have to rethink our strategy around who we partner with. We also have to constantly be aware of how we are seen by commissioners, local authorities and government.
‘Building brilliant relationships’ was born out of the need to do more of that.
We know it is our strength, and we know more of it is required if we are to protect and grow our business. It also refers to our relationships with individuals and what we achieve for them in terms of life outcomes - that is so important too.
How did you manage to distill your strengths down to develop a positioning?
It sounds very simple, but to actually articulate it in such a simplified fashion takes an awful lot of work and focus. Many different people in the organisation were involved in that piece of work with Brand Vista.
It was a really engaging and brilliant piece of work, and has given everyone a set of five clear brand behaviours to stand behind.
The strategy work identified four goals. What difference has this made to how employees and customers engage with the company?
Everyone within the business has been immersed in our core values, our strategy and our goals. It means that no matter where you work within this business you know what we stand for and what we are aiming to achieve over the next five years.
People can see the link with what they are doing on a day to day basis.
One of the goals is to provide 90% of Home Group’s services digitally. How much progress has been made to date?
Currently we deliver about 20-30% of our services digitally, and we want to increase this to 90% in the next five years. That is a massive challenge for us.
The last three months has been about defining the new customer experience in line with the brand behaviours and identifying how to digitise the customer experience wherever we can.
It has been a brilliant piece of work…
It has given us a journey map which details what the high level customer experience will look like, detailed what we need to do consistently and identified those things that can really make us stand out compared to other providers.
At the moment the digital work is in the definition phase...
We are examining the customer experience to identify what we already do digitally, although not necessarily consistently, and what will involve a real change. We will soon be able to identify key initiatives and milestones to track our five year progress towards that 90% goal.
What key lessons did you learn from working with Brand Vista and taking part in the four workshops?
There was one particular session on identifying the ‘brand amplifiers’ - the things that will differentiate us. The session focused on ‘breaking the rules and thinking very creatively, which was brilliantly facilitated workshop that really got people thinking differently’.
Everyone walked away from it saying they had learnt so much in terms of how to think differently. It was so innovative, and the sheer energy and focus that went behind it was immense.
Can you share an example of what came out of this session?
There are so many regulations and so much legislation within the sector. The workshop challenged us to think about what we would do if we were given the freedom to break the rules.
People started to discuss ideas and we realised that some things were possible within the current legislation, but we had never really challenged it. It made us see that sometimes we are too constrained.
As a sector, we don’t necessarily look at all the innovation that is going on outside of social housing. However there was no reason why we couldn’t start creating more of that in the homes and services we provide to people.
In some ways we have been stuck in the traditional model.
Take connectivity - smart meters and smart homes, for example. These are highly relevant for some of our customers today because of their vulnerabilities. That isn’t necessarily new thinking but we need to be thinking about how we as a sector could do more of that.
Another example is the way that people pay. Why couldn’t we have more flexible payment plans, allowing people to pay rent on a different frequency to the way they have done for the last 40 or 50 years?
Being able to say, ‘Why not?’ allows you to think in a more innovative way. It’s a work in progress at the moment, but the session offered real food for thought.
We aim to go into production with a new customer offer for a small cohort of customers in April 2018, based on what Brand Vista have helped us to design.
Can you share some examples of the brand basics and brand amplifiers that were identified?
We identified 88 brand basics, some of which are already in place. But we are still considering whether we enhance what we do today or move to a completely new offer. We need to verify what is most important to customers and also validate these with costings.
For example, one brand basic is that we will be available 24/7. However, what we have yet to specify is how that availability will be provided.
How has the project impacted on employee morale and engagement to date?
Brand Vista are good at engaging larger groups within the organisation, rather than just small bespoke or senior groups. They really worked very hard to engage as many people as they could, on both the brand and customer experience.
There are nearly 3,500 of us at Home Group and I think we all feel more connected if we can see that colleagues are involved in such big initiatives. We feel a certain amount of assurance that our voice is heard.
What is the next challenge for Home Group, and what are you preparing for?
We are focused on next April, and on our five year goal to provide 90% of services digitally.
When I look at the customer experience, ideas such as connected houses are a long term goal. So it’s about saying this is a five year plan and detailing what will go into each year.
As we get into the specific elements of each of those years, we will probably work with a specialist like Brand Vista to drill down what some of those steps mean for consumers.
Brand Vista are experts. They are brilliant listeners, and I think their approach is innovative and incredibly engaging. They are able to communicate with their clients in a way that says, ‘we get you’. And they articulate their findings in a way that really makes you want to know more.