2021 Brand of the Year: Telus makes the future friendly

How the telco is putting its technological prowess to work solving critical human needs.

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This week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2021 Brands of the Year. Check back throughout the week to see the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, including Harry RosenThis story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy.

By Will Novosedlik

Looking at some of the initiatives behind Telus’ new tagline “Let’s Make the Future Friendly,” it’s clear that CEO Darren Entwistle and his executive team have taken a very different approach to growing the business. Rather than invest in sports, media and entertainment, as its chief rivals Bell and Rogers have done, Telus has chosen to differentiate by using its technological might to address critical human needs.

In a move that now appears prescient, Telus spent $3 billion back in 2011 to build a healthcare business. This initial venture was focused on digitizing medical records so that doctors and patients could connect over the internet. It was not only strategically aligned with the company’s core strengths, but it also set Telus on a path towards using its business to create a positive social impact.

Telus has set out to prove that there does not need to be a trade-off between financial performance and social and environmental responsibility. Indeed, the telco has discovered that addressing some of the most pressing problems in society and the economy is good for business.

“When a customer goes to our website and they see a social purpose message, we see twice the number of cart completions. This year alone we saw a 10-point increase in the perception that we are socially responsible,” says Jill Schnarr, chief social innovation and communications officer.

A decade ago, Telus asked customers if what it did in the community had an influence on their decision to remain a customer. At the time, 15% to 20% said yes. Now, the percentage runs upwards of 75%.

It’s also showing up in the balance sheet. In 2020, Telus led the industry in revenue and EBITDA growth. It had the highest customer growth rate in the industry, and continues to have the lowest customer churn, according to Schnarr.

“We’re proving that doing good is good for business,” she asserts. “You’ve got to give back to the communities where you live, work and operate. That’s why we’re developing business innovation ecosystems and new industries. It’s why we’re driving innovation and social change.”

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Take the agriculture sector, for instance. Schnarr says the company decided to look at how to improve the global food system after studies showed the need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed the world’s population, and that roughly a third of food produced is wasted during shipping.

Schnarr says the question became, “How can we use technology to make our current resources more efficient and productive? How can we leverage innovation and digitize the production chain – everything from seed to farm to fork?”

So, in November 2020, the company unveiled Telus Agriculture, a new business unit dedicated to providing tech solutions to the agriculture industry, having acquired a cluster of companies focused on things like food traceability and supply chain management. It now has the capacity to connect everyone in the agriculture value chain, from seed manufacturers and farmers to grocery stores and restaurants.

In the same month, Telus launched the Pollinator Fund For Good, a $100 million impact fund designed to build an innovation ecosystem of start-ups with both a business and a social purpose.

According to Schnarr: “As one of the world’s largest corporate impact investment funds, we want a financial return, but we also want to see a social return. It’s focused solely on investing in small businesses that are addressing health, education, agriculture, and the environment – just like we are.”

In a late-2020 bid to address the unmet needs of those who were struggling, Telus expanded its Connecting Canada initiatives. To families that were receiving internet access for $10/month under its Internet for Good program, the company offered two free months during the pandemic and extended the program to include low-income Canadians with disabilities. And the Mobility for Good program – originally providing youth transitioning out of foster care with a free smartphone and data plans – was expanded to include low-income seniors on a guaranteed income supplement.

During the pandemic, Telus Health also played a critical role supporting those in need, providing virtual healthcare solutions to hospitals and long-term care homes, so that patients and residents could remain connected to their loved ones during lockdown.

These socially focused initiatives have long been part of the brand’s culture, but consumers have not necessarily been aware of them. Bringing that message to the foreground was part of the reason it unveiled a brand update earlier in 2021.

The company’s original tagline, “The Future is Friendly,” was meant to address people’s fears of technology. Twenty years later, Canadians are much more comfortable with technology, but they’re subject to other fears: climate change, social inequality and economic uncertainty.

By evolving the tagline to “Let’s Make the Future Friendly,” Telus turned it into a call to action to use technology for social and environmental good. The change was subtle, but the addition of the first two words was meant to move it from the realm of the metaphorical into that of concrete human action.

Subtle changes were also made to the visual identity, including the way Telus’ famed cast of critters are shot. “They were starting to look a little too manufactured, like they were suffering from too many rounds of retouching,” says Jack Shute, general manager at The Greenhouse, the brand’s purpose-built AOR. “When you see these animals now they don’t look so CGI.”

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Beyond the tagline, Telus has also integrated purpose into its commercial messaging.

“The messaging mandate going forward is to never separate product from purpose,” Shute says. “Now every bit of product communication will include a message about how that product or that service is helping the world.”

For example, in a spot for Peace of Mind Mobility plans, the words “Get connected with unlimited data, and together we’ll connect Canadians in need” appear just before the signoff. For a Samsung 21 spot: “Get it on the network that gives back.”

But there’s more to it than just combining product with purpose in ads, Schnarr says. “Given the complexity and broad nature of ESG, we’ve developed a fully integrated marketing communications, public relations, events, social media and advocacy plan to communicate our leadership in ESG in sustainability, diversity and inclusion and community investment.”

Telus’ goal for the future is to integrate its social purpose at every one of its thousands of customer touchpoints. Historically, its marketing efforts had been fractured, with each business unit individually managing its own campaigns.

Leveraging the evolved brand promise, Schnarr is working to align the marketing strategy across the organization – from Mobility to Home Solutions and Telus Health – coordinating a cohesive message that promotes and reinforces its leadership in social capitalism.

Public relations are helping drive that ESG leadership message home. For example, the brand has focused a significant amount of PR on its $750 Million Sustainability-linked Bonds initiative this year, which links debt financing costs with its carbon emission reduction targets. In other words, if Telus does not meet those targets, the interest payable to bondholders will be higher.

Finally, Telus has enabled thousands of employees to share its ESG messaging on their own social networks. Using the Hootsuite Amplify app, it pre-populates ESG social media posts that staff can then automatically post or customize in LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

More than 94% of employees agree that Telus plays an active role in the community and is a socially responsible organization. This is important, because their support drives business results, too. When customers understand the good Telus does, they’re four times more likely to purchase, 4.5 times more likely to recommend and four times more likely to trust the brand.

“Whether you’re in the store, visiting the website, using the Telus MyCare app, talking to a representative or browsing social media,” explains Schnarr, “our goal is to make it impossible to do business with Telus without understanding the good that we do for our communities.”

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