Creating a marketing strategy with impact: the award-winning Open Water campaign

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At the 2022 British Book Awards, Alexia Thomaidis and Zoe Coxon of Penguin General took the crown for Marketing Strategy of the Year, for their campaign for Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson. In this interview, Alexia and Zoe give insights into how the campaign was developed and how it called on expertise both inside and outside the Penguin General team. Our thanks to Zoe and Alexia for sharing their experiences with the BookMachine community.

Congratulations on the award! Can you please set the scene and tell us how the campaign first started, how the book came to you and who you first collaborated with on the team?

Alexia: Open Water had been acquired a couple of months before I started at Penguin General. When I joined, the buzz for this book in the team was evident straight away, this was a book that everyone was excited about. When I read it, I knew I wanted to work on it! From the very beginning we worked super closely and collaboratively with the completely brilliant Jane Gentle and Rosie Safaty who ran the PR campaign and Caleb’s editor, the amazing Isabel Wall. We were also lucky to collaborate closely with Caleb Azumah Nelson, one of the most hard-working and creative authors!

Zoe: I first encountered Open Water when I joined Penguin General too and just found the synopsis so compelling that I read it as soon as Isabel’s edits were completed. I loved how Caleb’s use of the second person immediately connected with the narrator and gave the book a sense of poetry as well as all of the musical references. When my manager asked me if there was a book I’d like to work on during lockdown, I asked to join the dream team.

How did the lockdown publication impact both planning and implementing the campaign? Did the situation present any opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise considered?

Alexia and Zoe: With bookshops being closed, we knew it was more important than ever that we had an effective digital campaign; Gavin Hilzbrich (Moonage) ran digital advertising across Facebook and Instagram for us. We ran social ads for pre-publication and on publication as well as a burst to coincide with bookshops reopening. With lockdown, we knew that a lot of people were spending a lot more time online, and a way to tap into a younger digitally engaged demographic was through YouTube advertising; we used our Open Water trailer creative for this. As Caleb couldn’t do live events due to the lockdown restrictions, we also arranged for a lot of Instagram live sessions with smaller influencer accounts such as Black History of Art and DopeReadersClub.

We knew this was a challenging time for the high street, so we worked collaboratively and reactively with retailers, providing assets and exclusive content to independents, and working closely with Waterstones and Foyles. We worked with retailers at every step from the cover reveal to the Open Water trailer launch as well as providing exclusive content for their blogs. Caleb is a dream to work with – collaborative, trusting that everything we asked him to do had value (and doing it expertly!), and understands innately the importance of building bookseller relationships. It was extraordinary how much support the book had from booksellers online whilst the stores had been closed.

What was the most important element of your strategy when creating that pre-publication buzz and driving pre-orders?

Alexia and Zoe: The cover of Open Water had the most incredible reaction online following our cover reveal, so we wanted the cover to be the focus of the marketing creative. We really wanted to showcase the stunning cover and get it out to as many readers, bloggers, influencers and media as soon as possible. Early awareness and support was key to the campaign and one of our first moves was to prioritise a large proof quantity for PRH’s BAME group, Colour(Full). All proofs were snapped up within 24 hours and over the course of the year, those early readers became vocal champions of Caleb and his work. 

We also made sure there were an abundance of proofs to share with colleagues so they could be part of the excitement – some of the book’s greatest champions had nothing to do with the campaign. The whole comms team was fully invested in Caleb’s success, as were colleagues across the division and the whole business. Book bloggers embraced Open Water wholeheartedly too and the groundswell of word-of-mouth support across social media was extraordinary. They all deserve a big thank you!

The British Book Award judges were impressed that your marketing ‘created something out of nothing’ and positioned Caleb Azumah Nelson, a debut author, as a major new talent. What challenges does breaking a new author into the market come with and how did you find your way around those?

Alexia and Zoe: It takes a village to publish a debut that stands out as there are a lot of books out there and readers are harder to convince to pick up an author they don’t know. Making use of the incredible early author endorsements from Candice Carty-Williams, Yaa Gyasi and many others really helped to create a buzz around Caleb. It being a beautiful story of Black love that has the central couple photographed front and centre on the cover helped a lot too. It’s not seen in mainstream literature or on-screen enough and it really connected with readers.

We also wanted to keep the campaign as close to Caleb’s vision as possible which we felt really made the campaign feel fresh and exciting. An example of this is when we worked closely with Caleb and producer and director Justin Marosa to facilitate Caleb’s vision for the bespoke Open Water trailer featuring actors Adwoa Akoto (I May Destroy You) and Martins Imhangbe (Bridgerton).This was a chance to create something that was exciting and to create awareness for Open Water.

Can you tell us more about working with inclusion consultancy The Unmistakables? What advice would you give to others in publishing thinking about engaging consultants for their own campaigns?

Alexia and Zoe: It was incredibly valuable. We knew that this was a book to be enjoyed by everyone, but at the same time, with a Black author writing a Black British love story, it was important to us to ensure the campaign actively included own voice readers as we knew it would particularly resonate with them. The two of us don’t have that lived experience, so we have blind spots and unconscious biases that the session helped us to interrogate. For example, one of the comps we were using was Normal People as another brilliant contemporary love story, but it wasn’t a book or TV series that everyone in the session had read or watched themselves.

Have any marketing campaigns (bookish or otherwise) stayed with you as being particularly effective, or have any caught your attention recently?

Alexia: I’ve been in awe of the campaign for Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, it’s been so creative from the start. I really loved the proofs that were designed to look like a video game case, and they’ve made the video game that appears in the book, so amazing!

Zoe: I really loved the recent campaign for the final season of Derry Girls. It oozed ’90s nostalgia from the Smash Hits magazine cover to the TikTok filter to the Spotify mixtapes.

Alexia Thomaidis joined Penguin General in December 2019, having begun her career at HarperCollins. She is currently Campaigns Manager across the Viking, Hamish Hamilton and Fig Tree imprints. 

Zoe Coxon joined Penguin General in January 2020 having started her copywriting career at retailers Warehouse and Paperchase. She is currently the Creative and SEO Copywriter on the Marketing team, where she works across all titles on the publisher’s list helping them to navigate the digital marketing landscape and make sure that all the copy for their books appeals online.

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