Brendan Seery

Death and taxes are said to be unavoidable and no one looks forward to either. So putting together an advertising and marketing campaign to encourage people to complete their tax returns and settle what they owe is, one would think, an almost impossible task.

Yet, the SA Revenue Service – the arm of government which is most successfully run as a business unit – has done just that for more than a decade. And not only has it achieved success in promoting the brand of Sars, it has also delivered hard “sales” results in the form of hugely improved compliance from taxpayers and, therefore, in revenue collection.

Because it’s that time of year again, Sars has embarked on a major national multimedia campaign to encourage people to fill in their returns.

And, it’s being done with more than a dash of humour.

Centrepiece of the campaign is someone called Riaan, an unlikely hero and the star of TV ads and YouTube video spots. Not muscled or athletic, Riaan is the ordinary oke who manages to achieve hero status among his friends because he tackles his tax filing through Sars’s online eFiling system.

The ad and the campaign urge people to get moving and get filing.

Marco Granelli, the group executive: communications at Sars, says the campaign has been highly successful.

“We hit our first million returns within 22 days this year… a 60 percent improvement over last year!

“I don’t think all credit can go to the marketing campaign, but certainly it has played a role.”

Granelli says that Sars’s marketing follows its structured and professional approach to tax collection, which has seen revenues collected increasing almost exponentially since 1994.

“We develop a strategy linked to our key objectives as Sars and then in the creative execution of that strategy. This includes using market research to help identify the needs, aspirations and feelings of our target audiences and then coming up with strategies to help meet – and hopefully exceed – these expectations.”

Granelli says this also includes “product development”. And “this year’s new products are a very good example of how market research we conducted… last year has influenced the development of new technology products – such as cellphone filing, the new cellphone app and our new Help-You-eFile service”.

The market research was done after it was found many taxpayers were choosing what appeared to be the less convenient option of submitting their returns at a branch rather than by using eFiling.

“What this research showed us is that a far larger proportion that we anticipated did have access to the internet (more than 60 percent) – but for many this was through their cellphones – and that awareness of eFiling was very high. The reason many of them were not using eFiling was that they didn’t know how to use it, or they perceived it to be complicated, or because they were fearful of making a mistake in their returns which would result in punishment from Sars – so they felt more comfortable in visiting a branch where a Sars person helped them complete the return.”

Apart from the products developed to help these taxpayers, a number of training videos were produced and put up on YouTube.

Three additional videos are in production – how to make a payment to Sars via eFiling, how to file your return on your cellphone, how Help-You-eFile works – and will be introduced along with the launch of the products.

Tax Season (originally called Filing Season) was introduced in 2003 and gave Sars a specific period and time frame in which people needed to submit their tax returns. This lent itself to a more focused and concentrated marketing and PR campaign.

However, says Granelli, “as Tax Season has grown and developed over the years, so has the marketing side of things”.

“In the early days, we had relatively basic and simple communication campaigns, but as the campaign grew and as we advanced, we began to expand our communication campaign to be a comprehensive through-the-line campaign utilising a whole range of channels and tactics.

“These have included educational TV shows, TV adverts, ‘product placements’ in soapies (to remind people to pay their tax and submit their returns), radio, print, outdoor and direct communication (we have always sent letters, information and reminders directly to taxpayers).”

The growth in eFiling and the explosion of cellphone ownership has made direct communication with taxpayers much more efficient and cost-effective.

“This has allowed us to use the above-the-line channels to communicate the big ideas and key elements of the campaign and to leave information-intensive communication (like how, when, where, what etc) to e-mail channels.

“Tax Season allows Sars to communicate information about tax – including why it is important for our country to pay your tax honestly – to a wide audience at a specific time of year in a focused way when people are thinking about tax. It would be difficult – and very expensive – to communicate this message on a continuous basis. But having Tax Season gives us a window where we can focus attention.”

Return on investment is an important factor in the campaign – just as it would be for a conventional brand. And the numbers look good.

l The number of registered individual taxpayers increased from 1.7 million in 1994 to more than six million in 2010. This number has doubled following policy changes last year to register all individuals who are formally employed – 13.7 million individuals by March 31, despite changes to the tax thresholds.

l Over the same period, the number of companies registered for income tax increased from 422 000 in 1994 to more than two million in 2011/12.

l The number of registered VAT vendors has increased from 397 000 in 1994 to 664 000, while the threshold for VAT registrations has risen substantially, to a turnover of R1 million a year.

l The number of registered employers has grown from 177 000 in 1994 to 385 000.

l The number of people who submit returns by the deadline grew from about 58 percent in 2007 to more than 83 percent last year.

l Electronic submissions: Sars has enjoyed one of the most rapid uptakes in electronic filing anywhere in the world over the past six years since eFiling was introduced for individuals in 2007 – growth from basically zero in 2006 to more than 60 percent of returns received last year (2.3 million).

l Total revenue collection increased from R114 billion in 1994/95 to more than R742.7bn in the most recent financial year (2011/12).

Granelli says market research has shown there is strong support for Sars “as an effective, efficient institution with high integrity”.

The latest campaigns for Sars are being done by ad agency draftfcb in Joburg, which was selected after a tender process that later included a four-way agency pitch.

“A whole range of factors was taken into consideration as part of this process (including value for money, ability to meet our requirements etc) but obviously the creative execution which they presented at the pitch based on our brief was a very important element.

“The evaluation panel found their presentation to be fresh, innovative, inspiring and touching all the right points – including supporting our brand. The campaign you are seeing is based quite closely on their presentation.”