Why did #callbrussels work?

Public phone for people to call into Brussels and ask how things are.

After tweeted cat pictures kept up morale during Brussels’ lockdown last year, the city’s imaginative side worked to restore its image in the aftermath.

The local tourist board, visit.brussels, invited people to call in via the internet to ask how things were – in particular, whether any bombs were exploding.

The calls went through to three telephones set up in public spaces. When these rang, passers-by picked up and answered. No, no bombs were going off, came the replies – and the waffles are good.

In the five days of the campaign, 12,688 calls came in from 154 countries. Stories on #callbrussels were picked up by numerous TV stations and newspapers from London to Washington.

There were two crucial ingredients in this success. First, visit.brussels ceded control of the message. If the tourist board had tried to reassure people that Brussels was safe again, the natural reaction would have been, “Well, of course the tourist board says that – that’s what it wants people to believe.” So people would not have been convinced.

But when the message comes unrehearsed from people without a clear interest – and when you can hear their voices and ask questions – it’s more believable. Moreover, by letting go of control of the message, visit.brussels showed confidence that everyone would confirm that Brussels is OK now. As a result the message was highly credible – one of the Heath brothers’ six criteria for the qualities that make an idea “sticky”, summarised here.

Second, the idea was original. Get normal people in the street to do the reassuring – and get them to do this by setting up public telephones, which themselves are a rarity! How bizarre! (This is another of the Heaths’ criteria for stickiness – that an idea be unexpected.)

That attracted international coverage for the stunt, so the message reached far more people than just those calling in. And the media reports encouraged more people to call in.

Could this kind of campaign catch on in other destinations suffering hangovers after disasters, from floods to violence? They’d be less surprising than #callbrussels, but there’s still a good lesson in how to get a message believed: Invite people to ask the man in the street.

  • Tom

    “a good lesson in how to get a message believed” and “As a result the message was highly credible ” Tragically disproven. This particular marketing campaign will be held up as an example of what happens when social media marketing gurus drink their own bathwater or dare I say, cant see the “wood for the trees”