CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - ORANGE. Orange and Mother throw out the map

Should Mother be leading Orange into uncharted ad water?

The industry charity Nabs could be in for a substantial cash injection in the next few weeks - and it all boils down to the awareness rating of Orange's new consumer advertising campaign, created by Mother.

Robin Wight, WCRS's chief executive and one of the creators of the Orange brand, has pledged a month's salary if the ads perform as well he claims his agency's did in Millward Brown's AI tests when WCRS held the account in the 90s.

Although those close to Orange say Wight's claimed score of 22 may be a little exaggerated, his characteristically flamboyant challenge came after a week of bad press for Orange and its advertising.

Its former chief executive, Hans Snook, in London to publicise his new business start-up, took the opportunity to slam its "Hard-Nosed Businessman" ads, launched six weeks ago and aimed at the business community. In an interview with the Financial Times, he said they were "irritating" and "the worst things I have seen", before adding that they went against the ethos of Orange's previous "bright, beautiful and confident" ads.

The Sunday Times took a similar slant, and Mother's campaign has also been the subject of colourful, mostly unflattering, discussion within the industry.

Such negative publicity in exactly the titles read by the bosses of Orange's marketing director, Jeremy Dale, must have been more than a minor inconvenience.

However, Dale, unrepentant about the business ads, isn't consigning the titanium-nosed mouthpiece of the campaign to an early grave. He claims that research showed only 14 per cent of people had any quibble with the ads. He also says that, by the end of March 2003, Orange's 13.3 million customers made it the UK's leading mobile company.

But quick to move on, Dale explains that Orange's new consumer branding campaign, launched last week, will cut through what he calls a "soup" of mobile branding assaults. He says: "It is really true to Orange's values - it's engaging, charming and full of optimism."

The campaign, and indeed all the work from the Mother/Dale partnership to date, is designed to harvest more revenue from customers in a saturated market. Previously, Dale argues, big, soulful branding campaigns worked well to introduce consumers to the wonderful world of mobile technology.

Now, he argues, consumers want to know that their provider is the best in terms of service and deals.

Hence, the new ads represent a change of strategy for Orange, that of enabler rather than seller, according to Dale. The latest ads spoof a docusoap focusing on the lives of those studying at the Orange Training Academy, and star Dylan, a techno-savvy youngster in a suit who points the adult trainees in the right direction. "The campaign has moved with the times - there's an element of humanity that our research has shown consumers welcome," he says.

There is an undeniable and deliberate air of comedy about the campaign.

Taken alongside the "Hard-Nosed Businessman", it has fuelled claims that Mother is unable to present ideas any other way.

Dale vehemently disagrees. "In this market, humour is a very real way of achieving cut-through," he says, adding that the "hard-nosed businessman" ads achieved five times the recall of any of its previous ads. "Orange can support humour. And it makes the other ads look old and one-dimensional."

He claims Mother's grasp on the campaign's "smart and populist" thinking cemented a strategy brought about by a conversation with Orange's head of retail. "We asked him if we could have a trainer in each store in order to implement the communications strategy. He said: 'No, all our staff will be trainers'," Dale remembers.

Wight, whose passion for the Orange brand is unabated, does not believe the strategy is strong enough for Orange. "Orange's new campaign from Mother represents a change of strategy in the agency's style of advertising. It is experimenting with positive rather than negative advertising. Given that it's a technique with which the agency is not particularly familiar, it's not surprising that there's still room for improvement. The first commercial is strategically strong in the sense that people do need to be taught how to use their mobile phones properly. But where is the vision?" he asks. "Orange was built around its Wirefree vision, so it saddens me that this core element of Orange is now absent from its communications."

But the Ogilvy & Mather group development director, David Muir, thinks the campaign hits the right tone. "It must be the most terrifying brief to take on - you're walking in the shadow of giants, but I think the strategy is fantastic and will deliver." However, he asks: "It all looks good, but does it lose the class for which Orange is famous?" The Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest partner and former Orange account director at WCRS, Charles Vallance, answers that question with a clear "yes". He doesn't think that Orange is a brand that sits naturally with humour. "Its strength lies in its ideology," he claims.

Orange's launch success inspired many imitators, not least O2, so Dale's desire to move the brand forward by replacing the slick coolness of old with the humorous coolness of Mother is understandable. The brand is gaining stand-out, but recall does not guarantee sales. Dale and Mother are in uncharted waters.

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