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10 Sep 2013

National Trust ‘trying to be a cool grandad?’

Posted on September 10, 2013 by

A game-changing move from the National Trust this week has got PR tongues wagging. Its announcement that it will open the Big Brother house to the public for one weekend only later this month is a bold one, sparking a whole heritage / cultural debate as well as getting Anne Widdecombe all of a fluster.

The National Trust is better known as the custodian of the UK’s most important properties, so the fact it’ll be giving guided tours of a television residence which has created so many new ‘celebrities’ and endless tabloid gossip is causing a stir.


The main sticking point is whether the house (actually, just a series of sets) can be counted as a true ‘heritage’ site and the cultural relevance, or non-relevance as it were, of Big Brother. I’m not so interested in that hoity toity argument though – quite frankly I’m bored of it, people have been getting on their high horse for years on that one.

I’m more interested in the Trust’s strategy to bring in a younger, more urban audience and seemingly kick-starting it with this stunt. It’s relevant to a few things I’m working on at the moment – trying to ensure your target audience gets younger or it’ll die out, basically.

Apparently the National Trust wants to communicate a ‘funnier’ image. Ivo Dawney, London Director of the Trust, told the Today programme: “It’s about time the Trust was a bit funnier, and I’m on a mission to make it so.”

First thing’s first, I think funny is the wrong word. More personality, definitely, but it needs to stay true to its quintessentially English charm that we love and trust. It’s making positive movements already with its engaging presence on social media, experimenting with Vine and Instagram, and it’s always been clever at PR (remember the jars of fresh air?).

I admire their marked step change in direction here; it’s new territory for a brand with such a loyal following. It’s got people talking and we’ve got an idea of what to expect going forward. They’ve reassured us of their roots and key messages in the accompanying media interviews and press release quotes.

It’s been hailed by some as ‘wacky’ PR. I don’t think so, but I think the Big Brother partnership is perhaps too extreme and risks confusing the current core audience of older generations. They could’ve done something similar without aligning themselves to something gimmicky. But then would it have made national news?

It’s a fine line. You don’t want to alienate your core customer base, but equally, you need to make it appealing to new faces who go on more days out, spend more and share their experiences more online. Thinking of brands that have succeeded where others have failed miserably, the car industry is a good example – who in their right, young minds would’ve been seen dead in a Volvo until about five years ago? Skoda – so uncool it became cool. Range Rover – land of the country gents and tweed turned toys for glamorous celebrities.

Then there’s fashion. Barbour wax jackets have made the leap from old farmer’s staple to uniform of the Shoreditch hipsters. Hunter wellies, ditto. Jaeger is a brand I always associated with my grandma and mum, but now I lust over its new collections and pin its ensembles all over my Pinterest boards.

Can the National Trust do the same? The proof is in the pudding. Let’s see if membership rates from younger people increase as a result of this new push, it’s certainly worth preserving in my opinion.

As I see it, the National Trust is a lovely grandad-type figure – and grandads don’t have to try to be cool. They just are.

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