Calling out for a revamp

Deregulation in the telecoms market means that BT cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Trish Lorenz asks whether it’s the brand that’s doing BT a disservice

We all know it’s good to talk. But today the old BT mantra is being adopted by a growing number of companies eager to grab a share of its lucrative markets. Last month Tesco announced it was entering BT’s traditional territory by becoming a land-line supplier before the end of the year (DW 20 February). From August this year BT’s 192 will be replaced by a new number as the directory enquiries sector liberalises.

In response, BT is implementing a number of schemes ranging from pushing its broadband offer to developing new handsets. Last week it revealed that a Design House-led revamp of the phone book is also underway (DW 28 February). But is it enough? Do consumers today perceive the brand as a commercial, customer-centred offer or is it simply a default provider? Is the company ready to respond to home telephones in shopping baskets?

Newcastle group NE6 works with Yell, the company that now owns Yellow Pages and its on-line offering, NE6 managing director David Coates sees the BT brand as a ‘classic mid-1980s solution’. But, he says, consumers have moved on in their expectations since then and are ‘more sussed’ today.

‘Overall BT still has positive connotations of heritage and trust. The problem is that it understands its business but doesn’t understand its market. Consumers don’t want to be patronised. BT needs to understand the consumer better,’ Coates contends.

Landor Associates executive creative director Peter Knapp agrees. He says BT was considered an innovative brand in the past, but has lost ground recently to more responsive competitors.

‘The public sees the brand as large and institutional. It gives the impression of being distant, not an intimate service, and doesn’t have the agility it needs,’ he explains. ‘Other companies react faster to technology and customers.’

Wolff Olins created BT’s ‘piper’ marque in the 1980s and creative director Lee Coomber says the company is still a leader in technology and customer service. He cites 1471 as an example of true innovation, but, he adds, the brand doesn’t always reflect this.

‘BT is still a trusted national provider, but people’s perception is that BT is a follower [not a leader], and this may mean it is caught on the back foot,’ he says.

Hutchison Telecom global brand director Doug Hamilton, formerly executive creative director at Wolff Olins, is more damning. He calls BT a ‘great and confused institution’ and says the problems lie in the organisation’s lack of focus.

‘BT has often lacked confidence about who it is and what it can become, so it’s hedging all bets,’ he says. ‘It’s still not sure whether to behave as a private or public organisation; whether to make profits or to serve. Like the BBC, it’s been around for ever, but, unlike the BBC, it’s in a poor state of repair.’

If these perceptions are accurate and BT is in a poor state of repair and perceived as distant from its customers, competitors will have an easy ride. Tesco, the latest in a series of entrants to the market, is probably the most challenging.

A strong retail brand with a focus on customers could put pressure on BT’s leadership position. Tesco may find it easy to woo disenchanted BT users who no longer want to deal with a behemoth utility and prefer a retail driven supplier.

To respond, says Knapp, BT needs to focus on adding ’emotional empathy, trust and intimacy’ to its brand.

‘That’s its challenge. It needs to create positive emotional associations in how it expresses itself. The brand needs to stand for being a consumer partner not a telecoms partner,’ he says.

Lambie-Nairn account planner Nick Sunderland agrees a more emotional response is vital. He feels BT is in danger of losing the strong emotional equity it created in the 1980s and early 1990s with campaigns like ‘it’s good to talk’.

The brand is moving into an area of ‘consumer ambivalence’, he says, and starting to find itself competing on value. He cites the example of British Gas as a positive one for BT to follow.

‘British Gas is moving into a more emotional area with [campaigns like] the warmth of a British Gas home. It plays on its strengths and stature and gives emotional reassurance. BT needs to head there, not the value market,’ Sunderland asserts.

Coomber feels the company should rely less on ‘bought media’ and focus instead on building the brand in areas where the consumer ‘has a relationship with it on a more real basis.’

‘BT is held back by being a big corporate. It has very good [advertising], but doesn’t penetrate with a real emotional connection,’ he says.

Coomber believes the company could strengthen this ’emotional connection’ through innovations in its hardware – phone booths and handsets for example – and branding these more overtly. He cites Orange and Nokia as companies that have successfully ramped up their consumer credibility through this technique.

‘BT is one of the few companies which provide [both] services and products, and they need to give us interesting things to interact with,’ he explains. ‘It wouldn’t be difficult to redesign or create new icons that we could associate directly with its innovation.’

Deregulation and competition are generally positive for consumers, as greater choice and better value usually follow. It seems in this instance deregulation might also be good for designers if BT rises to the challenge of revamping its brand to remain a market leader in the 21st century.

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