H&R Block pivots with a changing new tax season

The firm's retail operations and annual ad campaign needed to change in response to COVID-19 and extended CRA deadlines.
H&R Block

On Friday, H&R Block announced it was moving primarily to a drop-off model in Canada, as it responds to the latest COVID-19 developments. Clients who want to meet with an H&R Block tax professional to prepare their return are able to drop off their documents at an office and an associate will do the work without the client’s presence required. A tax professional will schedule a phone interview with each client to complete their tax return and discuss next steps.

While most businesses have faced similar adjustments to regular operations, H&R Block’s comes as the most important date in the company’s calendar has changed. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and Revenu Québec announced a new personal income tax filing deadline of June 1 last week, giving those who may owe taxes extra time to file.

Hilary Zaharko, VP of marketing at H&R Block, tells strategy that the brand does a lot of business continuity planning, but “you might as well throw it out the window, as these are unprecedented times.”

The accounting firm began removing chairs from its waiting rooms about a week or so ago, and soon realized far stricter measures were required as pandemic fears heightened, bringing about the drop-off only approach.

But the pandemic has also come amid tax prep season, the only time of year H&R Block typically has advertising in-market. According to Zaharko, the brand has changed its advertising as quickly as it can; specifically, the end slate of its TV ads now remind people that its services are still available but emphasizing drop off and online options.

The brand’s messaging for this year’s “Get What’s Yours” platform once again took a humorous approach, featuring a guy grousing about the workplace, and a pregnant woman describing her kids as “relentless” rather than “cute.”  But Zaharko says it is taking a more sober and informative tact on social media right now – focusing more on its online services and potential tax credits customers should keep an eye out for – with a degree of levity so it’s not all “doom and gloom,” such as an animated dodo letting people know that donations to conservation charities are eligible for a tax credit.

“If it becomes a point where the [TV] ad doesn’t seem relevant anymore, we would pull it off the air or change it,” Zakarko says. “As we go forward…we will evolve all overall messaging if it needs to change. At this point it’s about informing Canadians about how they can most safely file their taxes.”

When it comes to further getting the word out about the drop off, the brand is using PR, direct email and social channels, directing users to a dedicated microsite explaining how its services have changed and options that are available to them.

By Zaharko’s estimation, roughly two million Canadians still need to file their taxes. The brand operates in Hudson’s Bay stores (which has since closed) and other locations are being impacted by changing shopping mall hours. It has been directing clients that previously used locations that are no longer accessible to new drop-off locations, with Zaharko adding that more of the temporary offices its opens this time of year will remain as part of the tax filing deadline extension.

H&R Block also has two different online tax offerings, a DIY tax software and an online Tax Expert service introduced last year. The brand thought it would take time to build adoption of the newer offering, but Zaharko says there has been a noticeable uptick in users. The brand is looking into the analytics of who exactly is seeking out these programs, whether it’s existing clients that previously used retail channels, or brand new ones.

According to an Angus Reid survey, 65% of Canadians are worried about how the COVID-19 pandemic will hurt their finances. Zaharko says H&R Block has not seen any desperation with clients trying to file on time, but is still unsure as what the full impact of ongoing financial uncertainty may be.

“There are definitely people who want to get their taxes filed, so they can get their refund and access to government credits and benefits as soon as possible, knowing that their financial situation may have changed,” she says.