At last, the Royal E-Mail

Although the Post Office’s public body status is perceived as something of a millstone to its management, the brand which has been evolving around the red pillar box and the cheery postman for some 350 years is something it simply cannot afford to forget.

Royal Mail, its postal arm, is now embarking on its first non-paper postal venture, which could transform the way businesses send and receive messages and graphic images.

As the Post Office seeks to break free of its state imposed “shackles” and looks forward to a competitive future as an independent publicly owned company, it will carefully attempt to cradle its precious brand, while launching a raft of electronic services paving the path to a paper-free future.

Royal Mail’s ViaCode, launched last week, is an on-line data encryption service, enabling two businesses to transfer sensitive information over the Internet, using “keys” to unlock electronic information. It is a giant step forward for a body best known for postage stamps and mail vans. A big step too for the brand.

Carter Wong & Partners was charged with stretching the public perception of Royal Mail’s trustworthiness to the electronic sector. This is being kicked off with service literature, aimed at existing business clients.

The design aims to simplify a technical message through charts and diagrams. This is the Royal Mail’s first technology-led brand based on something other than the written letter, and it wanted to instill the same kind of trust reserved for its traditional service.

Carter Wong first became involved with ViaCode last May. Account director Helen Rayner explains: “Royal Mail sees it as so different to what it is used to. We are looking to take it to the business market using two ideas, asking: ‘Do you realise how exposed you are?’, and ‘Do you realise how much closer to your customers you can be?'”

Royal Mail estimates that within two years e-commerce will be worth 400m per annum in the UK, and a total of 2bn in Europe.

Market research group Fletcher Research estimates on-line shopping transactions alone, excluding personal financial services, will account for 3.1bn by 2003 in the UK.

Such huge predictions for the value of Internet transactions must be great news for services like ViaCode, even if only the most conservative estimates are realised.

More importantly for the design industry, will be how these services can be presented, initially to businesses, then ultimately to the consumer market.

Cap Gemini principal consultant Jaye Isherwood explains the proposition: “We need someone to hold the keys to encrypted information so that the authorities can check up when investigating criminal activity. We need a third party which we can trust. There is only one government body with the size and stamina, which is the Post Office.”

While not doubting its capability, Isherwood is critical of Royal Mail’s current corporate identity. “The Post Office’s image does need an evolution… I am surprised it didn’t launch itself as a Web-provider years ago,” she adds.

Interactive Media in Retail Group director of development Steve Johnston is less enthusiastic and suggests the move might be more of a reaction to legislation in the form of the Secure E-commerce Bill. “I don’t see any demand for this service. It seems more like it is positioning itself in case of mandatory legislation from the Government,” he says.

At least for the moment there is no conflict of interest within Royal Mail caused by commercial pressures. Johnston says people have an awful lot more trust in Royal Mail than in a commercial outfit like Microsoft or BT. He also recognises a real need for Royal Mail to re-invent its public identity given what he describes as its “prolific R&D”, and “admirable use of technology”, of which its customers are unaware.

Dr John Williams is managing director of one of the first UK Trusted Third Parties, Trustmarque. “These services do not just mean payments. We handle the digital delivery of objects such as graphic images and can ensure the delivery of authentic products and their rights of use.” he says.

Unlike the Royal Mail, Trustmarque offers a package of e-commerce solutions, but is not a certifier of authenticity, which is unique to ViaCode.

“This has to be done by a bank or body which is a publicly accepted checker of information. The Royal Mail is the UK’s most trusted brand and has an infrastructure suited to checking documents. It also has a presence in every town. In the same way lots of small businesses are looking to their banks as on-line advisors”, adds Williams.

He suggests credit checkers like Experian or Dunn & Bradstreet, national telecoms players like BT, or even the Government itself, would be suitable to play the role.

So has Royal Mail gone far enough in trying to reposition itself? The last word goes to Williams: “The big thing in terms of design is how to replicate the perception of the friendly postman on the Internet. The danger is that if the design is not right you will do more damage than good and even put people off the service.”

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