Brand Health Check: Orange

Just three years ago, the mobile operator seemed justified in talking of a bright future, but more recently the brand appears to have lost its sense of identity, says Ben Carter. Orange was once perceived as a textbook study in creating a brand with power and meaning from scratch. Launched in 1994 by Hutchison Telecom, it was backed by innovative advertising and branding. By 2001 it was heading for the UK market-leader spot and a multimillion-pound flotation under founder and then chief executive Hans Snook. The story today could not be more different.

Under the corporate governance of behemoth France Telecom, which is close to taking 100% control of the operator (it has more than 98% of stock), Orange faces a serious identity crisis. Despite a wholesale review in 2002, experts question the value of recent advertising campaigns, which have conveyed mixed messages.

For many years Orange was the operator of choice for the youth market, but trendier brands such as Virgin Mobile and O2 have taken its mantle and Orange does not appear to have defined a new target consumer.

Orange claims it is providing the best UK mobile network and is totally focused on customer service and innovation. It supports this with the fact that it has 13.4m customers. And the brand continues to churn out interesting initiatives. This month it announced the full launch of Orange Wednesdays, a promotion offering customers two cinema tickets for the price of one every week. But some argue such activity simply shows how desperate it has become to attract users. Its share of new mobile customers has fallen from more than 50% at the end of 2001 to little more than 13% for the last quarter of 2003.

So how can Orange regain the initiative and ensure that, with the advent of the 3G revolution this autumn, its future looks bright once again?

We asked James Kydd, brand director of Virgin Mobile, and Adrian Coleman, founding partner of Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest, the agency behind O2's advertising.

DIAGNOSIS 1 - JAMES KYDD BRAND DIRECTOR, VIRGIN MOBILE

Three years ago you knew exactly what made an Orange TV ad. However, if you took everything it has produced recently and put it together on a reel without any Orange branding, you would think the work had come from ten different companies.

Orange spent a fortune on marketing last year, yet our research shows almost all its success parameters are down. It is struggling to sign up customers and is losing many.

Ownership by a big company seems to have created many of these problems.

Perhaps too many influences are being brought to bear on its strategy.

In the past, Orange had a clear vision. It was not necessarily that clever, but it was simple and very effective. Its current strategy is all over the place, with muddling output and an air of desperation.

Orange seems content to leap on the next technology innovation, while showing no concern for consumer confusion. All networks will benefit from these new services, but Orange's lack of direction is muddying the waters for the whole industry.

REMEDY

- Create a clear business strategy and positioning. Stop trying to be all things to all people.

- Marketing messages and imagery must be clearer and more distinctive.

- To regain a powerful positioning as the arrogant, upstart network, get back to basics.

- Communicate in a much more straightforward way with the consumer. This is a core benefit that Orange can offer over its rivals.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - ADRIAN COLEMAN FOUNDING PARTNER, VALLANCE CARRUTHERS COLEMAN PRIEST

Orange traditionally had a vision of what it was and what it stood for, but recently it seems to have lost its way.

The brand no longer has a coherent view about where it wants to be.

Historically, Orange was strong on customer service as well as simplicity, and prided itself on this. But now it has lost touch with consumer demand, or at least is being beaten in these areas by newer operators.

Orange had developed a reputation for developing and promoting innovative products, but once again it has been left behind. The likes of O2 have now captured the high ground by offering digital music downloads and bolt-on text messages.

There are far too many different messages coming out of Orange, which have confused both the consumer and the rest of the market. And it seems Orange itself is confused about what its advertising represents.

Ultimately, in an attempt to target as many markets as possible, it has almost become a different brand for different audiences.

REMEDY

- Focus on core assets and decide what the brand stands for.

- Develop a set of beliefs or a vision that can be communicated across its marketing, as it did so successfully with 'The future's bright'.

- Use the brand's distinctive black-and-orange look across all customer material.

- Find a new target market, as more specific marketing will be more effective than a cover-all approach.