How the RAF used its past to build a new future

Group Captain Nick Bayley explains how a heritage brand cut through a congested media space to inspire the next generation of advocates and supporters from across the UK

2018 was a year of anniversaries: 70 years of the NHS; 100 years of women’s suffrage; 100 years since the end of World War One. It was also the centenary of the Royal Air Force (RAF). However, instead of simply looking back on a rich history, the RAF saw an opportunity to look forwards into its future. Recognising that its reputation was still largely defined by grainy pictures of dashing World War Two fighter pilots, it set itself the task of updating that image in order to engage a diverse new audience. Such forward thinking is paying off and, in April this year, its RAF100 anniversary campaign won the 2019 CIM Marketing Excellence Award for Innovation in the Not for Profit/Public Sector.

‘Celebrate. Commemorate. Inspire.’ was the strapline for the campaign, which ran from April to September 2018. Engine Group was commissioned to promote the centenary, with MHP as lead PR agency. As ever, it was important for the RAF to celebrate its history and commemorate its service men and women, but appealing to the next generation and reinforcing the RAF’s position at the forefront of science, technology and innovation meant breaking new ground.

Broadening horizons

“Pre-polling told us that white, middle-aged males knew what we were about”, says Group Captain Nick Bayley, the RAF’s director of media and communications. “But young people, females and BAME communities did not – and these are exactly the future generations we need to engage with. We need to show them that we are not just the elite flying aces of the last century; we are also engineers, doctors and logisticians who need their skills and support.”

And so, the RAF locked onto a new target. “We realised that to show new demographics that the RAF is not so different from them – and already includes people like them – we needed to approach them about their interests, through their channels and speaking their language.”

MHP were given the brief of creating moments and stories around some of the 338 events that comprised RAF100. To this end, promising young filmmakers were commissioned to make 30-45-second videos of some events, including the nationwide RAF100 baton relay, for Facebook and Instagram Stories. “Taking the baton relay around the country and into hard-to-reach communities made it a local event that connected with people across the UK, rather than just another big national event,” Bayley explains. “For obvious reasons, the RAF usually operates remotely, away from communities. Coming into those communities generated huge interest.”

In addition, a small number of influencers – chosen because their vlogs balanced reach with resonance and were already associated with areas such as lifestyle, sport, skills, tech and speed – were given experiences that only the RAF could offer. Millennials with large social media followings such as Alfie DeyesOli White and Joe Sugg flew with the Red Arrows or were sent to RAF Cosford for engineering training. It was the first time the RAF had used influencers, but they have no doubts about how rewarding such a risk has been. “In the public sector, there are very few examples of anyone successfully making an impact with influencers,” says Bayley. “We focused on a small, high-profile group, they made a splash and, as a result, there is a lot more interest across government in running similar campaigns.”

Game on

The RAF also turned heads at the Insomnia62 gaming festival. Rather than running a simple recruitment stand, it put together its own crack team of e-sports players and challenged pro gamers to a series of games that were streamed live on social media. “We’d been once before and taken an in-house training simulator, but it didn’t really connect with young gamers,” says Bayley. “By taking them on at their own games – and not doing too badly – this was a very different proposition. We showed them that the RAF already has people like them and has a real need for their skills.”

While it extended the reach of the RAF into new communities, the RAF100 campaign also demanded some internal changes, reveals Bayley. The RAF encompasses 33,000 service personnel, 5,000 civil servants and around 6,000 reserves based at multiple stations around the UK and beyond; so, is it easy for everyone to stay connected? “Communication can be difficult,” confirms Bayley. To keep the myriad PR activities of RAF100 on message, there was a toolkit for every team comprising imagery and press release templates. “With so many messages already out there, there’s a lot of competition. We needed to ensure we were consistently delivering our ‘Commemorate. Celebrate. Inspire.’ message, especially because this is just the start of a much longer conversation that will flow into our wider employer brand message of ‘Be a part of the next generation Air Force’.”

The RAF plans to continue using influencers to spread its message, but will build on its other 2018 activities in some novel ways. Amongst the ranks, it has identified 15 serving personnel from diverse backgrounds, many of whom are already prolific on social media, who will become ‘RAF storytellers’. These internal ambassadors will be sent out into new areas of the RAF and asked to vlog about their experiences. Meanwhile, the RAF’s main YouTube channel is also set to be relaunched. As Bayley concludes, “This is a great start, but there is much more to do.”

The impact of RAF100 in numbers

  • 11% of 16-24-year-olds felt pride in the RAF pre-campaign
  • 70% of 16-24-year-olds felt pride in the RAF post-campaign
  • 20% of BAME audience felt pride in the RAF pre-campaign
  • 72% of BAME audience felt pride in the RAF post-campaign
  • 5 million organic views for influencer content
  • 19-minute average view time of influencer content
  • 8 billion people reached through the 250 media outlets that covered RAF100 PR activities
  • 60% uplift in unique visits to the RAF’s recruitment website

Find out more about the award-winning RAF100 campaign here.

Register your interest for the 2020 CIM Marketing Excellence Awards now.

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