Marketing effectiveness – the sad case of Purple Bricks

When online estate agent Purple Bricks hoisted the For Sale board on its business in February, the value of the business had plummeted from £1bn to £23m, due to what was reported in The Telegraph as ‘a flawed business model and overambition’.

In Marketing Week, back in August 2022, the company’s CEO had blamed ‘poor marketing effectiveness’ for recent losses. Instead of focusing on its ‘cheap fees’ business model, the company had almost doubled its marketing costs per property instruction from £329 to £629. It had, for example, embarked on a series of expensive sponsorships and a national campaign led by TV advertising.

With a £25m marketing budget come significant requirements for setting of KPIs during campaign planning, testing of new approaches before the entire budget is allocated and robust measurement of effectiveness throughout the campaign lifecycle.  It’s classic business school stuff, and with the metrics available to marketers nowadays it seems incomprehensible that the Purple Bricks team could have spent so much without validating that tangible business outcomes were being achieved.

Yet it doesn’t take a genius to spot some of the poor decisions that led to the conclusion that marketing wasn’t delivering business value. One example is the brand’s use of sponsorships. The idea of putting a Purple Bricks sign on the Rovers Return in Coronation Street was clearly relevant to its brand promise. Signing up to be the ‘official estate agent of Team GB’ for the Tokyo Olympics was a less obvious move. An official estate agent for the Olympics?

Sports sponsorships at that level are not for the faint-hearted – just look at how much cash Ineos has poured into its headline sponsorships of major global sporting events. The only way this was going to work effectively for Purple Bricks was through a superlative PR effort, positioning the brand in the right media to influence its target audience. Sadly, Metricomm analysis of the results achieved by the media campaign shows that Purple Bricks’ Olympics sponsorship was far from a record-breaking performance. It barely moved the needle in terms of media effectiveness and had negligible lasting impact on consumer behaviour.

One indicator of brand health that is crucial to an online-only brand is Google search, reflecting levels of brand consideration and purchase intent. When communication is successful, this is often apparent in the search trend. The opposite is also true. As the chart shows, the rot was beginning to set in during 2019, when search volumes for Purplebricks fell steadily, dropping 70% from their highest point in February to the end of the year.

By the time the Covid-delayed Olympics took place in July-August 2021, that long-term downward trend was really apparent. Each ‘recovery’ became a lower peak in interest than those preceding it – a clear sign that marketing was failing to spark consumer action. It’s true that house sales were volatile as a consequence of the pandemic. However, data from the Land Registry and Statista show that the peak in property transactions in June 2021, when more than 150,000 houses were sold, coincides with search volume for Purplebricks running at around 50% of its peak. Even with the Olympics, it seems the brand was far from top of mind for those with a house to sell.

The challenge for marketing analytics is not having lots of data. It’s more important to look at the right data. Whatever other information was available to the marketing team, Google Trends alone should have given plenty of advance warning of the debacle to come. Even if the brand was regularly reviewing comparative results from its advertising, PR and other activities, the decline in Google search is a stark warning that nothing Purplebricks was doing in the marketing department was capable of reversing that trend.

If any more evidence was needed to illustrate that Purplebricks had become irrelevant, you only need look at the comparative search trend for Rightmove, which was hitting near-record highs of Google search interest at a point in time which coincided with the peak in UK house sales.

For many years, Metricomm has been using search as a solid proxy for consumer interest.  It is also a great barometer of marketing effectiveness, allowing analysis of which campaign activities contribute to increases in search. We don’t simply do this by looking at the trendlines; our analysis uses sophisticated statistical techniques to reveal the relationships between different, independent data sets, for example looking at the impact of media coverage on Google search and sales.