A poll last year showed that public awareness of housing associations is high. But how can we build on this to realise our ambition for customers to go to housing associations to find a great place to live?
The Federation worked with YouGov last year to ask 1,500 people just that, and there is good news. Overall awareness of housing associations is remarkably high - 97% of those polled had heard of a housing association. Some thought they knew a lot, others very little. Either way that level of name recognition offers a very promising starting point for talking to the public.
We then asked people to tell us what they thought housing associations do. Most answers to this question involved some variation on: “houses for poor people”, “cheaper rents”, “council housing”. Many of the answers were impressively precise, others less so.
There was very little mention of housing for older people or people with particular needs. But a very high proportion of the public do know about housing associations, and have some degree of understanding of what we do.
More good news. Overall, respondents said that housing associations made a positive contribution to society; 52% said either positive or very positive and only 6% said negative or very negative. Age was a factor here: the older a group was, the more positive their opinion.
So the public have heard about housing associations, many have some idea of the work we do, and most have a positive view of us.
All is well then?
There’s certainly plenty here to build on. But we have more to do to raise awareness of our work among younger people, for whom housing is a major priority. And whilst most people think we are a ‘good thing’, are we a ‘good thing’ for someone else, over there?
Which brings us to the public as customers. We already provide homes for 2.5m families, and we are ambitious about offering quality homes to many more over the coming years.
Our collective ambition is that we want everyone to think, “If you want a great place to live, go to a housing association.” We want housing associations to be seen as the obvious place to start if you’re looking for great place to rent or buy. We want to be providers of choice, with an offer that’s better than the competition.
The Federation has just started to look at customer attitudes to housing associations, working with the National Communications Group.
So what have we learned? Polling we commissioned asked, “Have you ever considered going to a housing association for a home?” 70% of respondents said they had never considered doing this. Only 3% of people had considered doing so in the last year. Things are better if you look specifically at people currently renting privately: 24% have considered going to a housing association for a home. That’s better, but it does leave 76% who have not.
These responses are understandable – we don’t yet have a compelling housing offer for everyone. We need to continue to innovate and develop new offers and approaches, and promote the breadth of that offer to potential customers.
In 2010 and 2011 DCLG paid for an extensive set of questions on housing in the British Social Attitudes survey. While these numbers are a little out of date, they’re interesting nonetheless.
People were asked to choose one main advantage of renting a home privately as opposed to from a local authority or housing association. The most commonly chosen advantage (cited by 21% of respondents) was that renting privately offers a wider choice of location. 16% said the main advantage is that renting privately means a wider choice of types of properties.
People renting privately were asked whether they agreed that they would like to live in a housing association or local authority property if they could get one. While 40% of people agreed that they would, 42% disagreed.
Time to tell our story
We have a real opportunity to build on the findings from this initial research. Over the coming months the Federation will be working with members to continue to explore the breadth of our offer and the scale of supply. We’ll also begin a conversation about the story we want to tell the public. It is a good story, one I believe would resonate if told consistently and creatively.
Other organisations and industries do this well – from Transport for London to the Post Office. Unilever are currently running a major advertising campaign which focuses on the social impact of their brands. Nationwide Building Society have gone back to their roots and are advertising their business model and commitment to their members. Why? Because it differentiates and offers a competitive advantage to these brands. Big players who chose not to tell their story often face suspicion and in some cases hostility from the public – think of the faceless service providers like Serco. Frankly I know where I’d prefer to be.
In March I’ll be hosting a session at our Communications and Marketing Conference exploring these issues in more detail. If we get this right it will move us closer to our shared ambition, so that everyone thinks, “If you want a great place to live, go to a housing association”.