Almost five years ago I attended the Age UK Annual Conference and below I am publishing the blog I wrote after than meeting. It’s relevant to the blog I posted on the 14th February 2016 about the Age UK brand. You can see in the fourth paragraph the remarks made by the new Chief Executive – Tom Wright, setting out the direction in which he was intending to take Age UK. He has the skills and experience to develop a more commercial and entrepreneurial side to this new charity for older people. At a time when Government funding for social care was being dramatically reduced and fundraising donations were being restricted by the austere times, who could argue with that approach?
Brand reputations are not easily built but can easily be damaged. Trust takes a long time to develop, but Age UK was building on the foundations of its predecessors – Age Concern and Help the Aged which gave Age UK a strong footing at the outset. Stepping in the direction of more commercial ventures was potentially rewarding but also carried some new risks. So below is the blog I wrote after that conference five years ago.
“Age UK – Agenda for Later Life 2011” – reprinted from 10th March 2011
On Tuesday of this week I went to the Annual Conference of the two organisations that were formerly called “Help the Aged” and “Age Concern”.
It wasn’t long before I was thinking I had stepped into a parallel universe – the shiny new, new speak world of Age UK. The world I had just come from only the day before seemed to be an era of neglect of older people and austerity cuts. In the last few months, there has been so much talk of complaints about NHS care of the elderly, reports by Age UK themselves on malnutrition and 80% Government cuts in Supporting People funding mainly affecting voluntary organisations and charities. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I had assumed I would see some of the forefathers of Dylan Thomas “raging against the dying of the light and old age burning and raving at the close of day”.
When I saw on the agenda that two of the speakers in a panel discussion on “Integrating Health and Social Care” were Jo Webber, the Deputy Director of the NHS Confederation and Dame Jo Williams, Chair of the Care Quality Commission, I at least hoped they would give the politely listening group of older people some rotten tomatoes for audience participation………………..sadly – no such luck.
The opening speech by Tom Wright, the new Chief Executive of Age UK, was all powerpoint and market speak. The £100 billion grey market is forecast to grow by 81% between 2005 and 2030. Tom seemed delighted by this, because it will guarantee that everyone in the years ahead is advised by Age UK, to get insured by Age UK, in case they fall out of their Age UK stair lift, on their way down from their Age UK bath and shower, to a breakfast provided by the Age UK sponsor – Sainsbury’s, who just love older people.
The new speak continued throughout the day. Everything was “embedded” and definitely “sustainable”. In this belated 1984 world, we are all “equal” and we all have “rights” – “equal rights”. We are all “engaged” – presumably to each other? – and everything is “counter-intuitive” or it isn’t because it doesn’t make sense. Oh! and in the Sainsbury’s bit of the world, the staff are all “colleagues” who intend to “shine their light” on their grey colleagues. We just need a quick chorus of “Shiny Happy People” and all will be bliss.
Almost euphoric after this first session, I was really looking forward to the tomato throwing in the group therapy session on the NHS and Social Care. Jo Webber came on and reassured that everything was wonderful in the NHS and there was no need to mention malnutrition (indeed nobody did). It probably never happened and even if it did nobody was to blame, there was not enough money, the staff were too busy and “lessons would be learned”.
Tom Wright had already told us that 176,000 older people like the NHS so much that they go back into hospital within a month of being discharged. What better endorsement of the service could a marketeer want than repeat customers!
Dame Jo Williams, the electric Chair of the Care Quality Commission, further reassured us that if anyone at all delivered poor care in future, they would be beaten remorselessly with a big stick. The audience by this point was so comforted that they forget to throw the tomatoes and politely applauded instead.
The “final solution” in this session came from the new techno age, when Dr Petra Wilson of the American computer software company CISCO Systems told us that help was at hand (or mouse). It is just a matter of time before all our care needs can be provided by Telecare kettles that report on our health to big brother in the “cloud” every time we have a cup of tea. In this new world future if we want companionship we can have a digital cuddly toy instead of a pet. Presumably if you don’t keep talking and stroking it, either you or the pet are dead! We need never speak to a real person ever again.
Just when it looked like it could not get any better, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith was billed to speak about pensions. An engineered leak in The Times, The Guardian and on BBC had rumoured that he was going to announce we will all get a £140 pension in future. He is a very polished speaker which suited this, by now, shiny audience.
Strangely at an Age UK conference for older people, he talked mainly about children and the need to protect their futures in later life. It was almost as though he was explaining that there wasn’t any money for the current generation of elderly people but that by 2050 everything would be alright. Then came the crescendo of his speech – the big announcement – when he had raised all hope and expectation this “Quiet Man” lived up to his reputation and said………………. NOTHING!
There was lots of hope and aspiration in the 2011 conference but the recent adverse publicity I referred to in my blog two weeks ago, about Age UK’s recommended energy contracts with EON, illustrates how quickly a good brand reputation can be damaged. Although the criticism may not have been entirely fair, the undesirable publicity will have done much to take the shine off Age UK’s new brand image.
Age UK Enterprises have also promoted many other suppliers and services and they should look carefully now to ensure there are no pitfalls in their offers, or more damage will be done. It is only a matter of time before these are investigated. It would be even more damaging if they are found to offer poor value.
I want to end on a positive note because I feel Age UK have done much over recent years to improve the reputation of the elderly sector. They just need to be ultra careful in dealing with the sometimes “shady” area of services to older people.
I am looking forward to seeing Age UK kettles and cuddly toys for older people which still have to be brought to market. I’m also still waiting for Ian Duncan Smith’s £140 pension for ALL pensioners to materialise, but that’s another story.