A global family album

A simple concept leads to great success. Proof that crisis can feed creativity?


In anticipation of their milestone 40th anniversary in 2009, DHL Express turned to theblueballroom, a London-based internal communications agency and regularly-contracted supplier to the international express mail service provider. Sheila Parry, the agency’s founder and managing director explained: “We started talking to DHL Express’ global communications team sometime around the end of 2007 and January 2008. In the early stages of our conversations, they were very keen on documenting some kind of history, some kind of story about the company and we were looking at a print option.” But any plans for a weighty – and expensive – coffee table book had to be set aside in the wake of the collapse of the economy, which affected several of DHL’s key markets. On the threshold of the anniversary year, the existing plans had to be replaced by something a little more cost-effective. According to Christof Ehrhart, executive vice president of corporate communications at Deutsche Post DHL, “We felt we had a fantastic milestone to celebrate and that to somehow wash over the whole year would send out negative messages to our staff. We needed to find a good balance though. With restructuring programmes being implemented at the global level, we could not spend a fortune. But we still had a great story, we have a 40-year legacy and heritage to celebrate, and a future to look forward to.” And so the campaign evolved into a digital platform onto which employees from around the world could upload their pictures, showing at once employee pride in the company, and the company’s global and intercultural reach.

Against the clock

Ehrhart has praise for theblueballroom’s solution: “The way that the agency responded – and it was the beginning of a real collaborative concept – was a concept that turned the tables on a traditional, top-down global programme type campaign. It was different, and it was on brief: for the people, by the people.” Parry, in turn, praises the client’s commitment: “When we said all that we were going to do in a coffee-table book we can do online, it was such a huge opportunity, it was spearheaded internally by such an insightful team who took the idea and took it through to the board.” 

Once approval had been secured by the group’s board, what originally was to be a DHL platform grew to be a Deutsche Post-DHL Group platform, meaning that anyone from the 500,000 strong work force could take part. Given the unplanned volte face in approach, time was a pressing issue. It was agreed that a life-span of between eight to 10 weeks was necessary for the campaign to gather sufficient momentum, and competition winners had to be chosen before the year’s end for it to make sense in the context of an anniversary. This left between six and eight weeks for the complicated process of building the platform. Even so, with the deadline looming, there were several hoops to leap through before work could begin. “It took a long time to get sign-off, even for a small budget, because budgets were really tight,” explains Parry. “But we got sign-off in the summer and we got about six weeks in all to build it. We had to go through various presentations to get approval, and we had to go through the various IT platforms they have to make sure that anybody with a DHL or Deutsche Post address could take part, and all the security protocols had to be adhered to.” With the platform in place, full briefing packs were distributed around the globe, with artwork for promotional materials (including posters, animated e-mail gifs, and video) providing for local translation and adaptation. This inclusive approach would eventually pay off: 112 countries submitted photos, there were over 500 page views every weekday throughout the campaign, 18,000 registered users, and 1.97 million page views. A ‘post-campaign’ campaign celebrated the 10 global winners with more traditional tools, including posters, postcards, presentations and banners.

Participation made possible

Did this reversal to more traditional material send a statement on the relative value of traditional and social tools? The growth of social media is frequently touted as making print irrelevant, but Sheila Parry disagrees. “I wouldn’t say it’s the death of print; there’s clearly a trend but there’s more of a permanence about print, there’s a collectability about it. Even though this was all online, people loved to see their posters in the warehouse, the winners loved the fact that we sent their postcards around the world. The other thing is there are loads of people that simply aren’t online everyday, and to get your message out to your employees isn’t always going to be achieved online, and so we have a lot of clients for whom print is still a major channel.” But Parry does see the success of this campaign as a wake-up call of sorts: “I think it’s a wake up call that should say ‘Encourage the use of media that allows people to participate, let your employees tell you a story’”. Christof Ehrhart agrees that digital tools are a means to an end, rather than the end itself: “For sure digital tools are a current trend and an inevitable platform for communications, but I would like to say that it was the human touch, the ‘soft’ factor, seeing how our employees take pride in being part of the company through visuals that won our top management over.”

For theblueballroom, the scale of the enterprise was as welcome as it was unprecedented. “If someone had said that your first major digital campaign would have been for DHL, I wouldn’t have believed them,” claims Parry, “because I would have thought that that was too ambitious: it was global and multi-platform and in the end had to be done very quickly. We’d been looking for very small projects to bring digital solutions to our clients in a contained, targeted and safe way, because companies weren’t brave enough to do it.” Parry credits the campaign’s success to the company’s innate interculturality “This would only work if the culture is right, and the thing about DHL is that at most levels of the company there is quite a high understanding of international trade; so all your couriers, customer service people, book-keepers, at any level in the company, are generally dealing with people outside their own country, so this network factor really played to the strengths of the social media opportunity.”

Ehrhart cites the employee engagement aspect as the campaign’s enduring legacy: “The way the campaign has drawn all our employees together, regardless of geography, function, or business unit, underscores its success because we have achieved our communications objective. Being able to draw positive employee engagement through a virtual community, especially in a time like 2009, gives a sense of satisfaction to all of us who worked on this campaign.”