In Britain’s fastest growing durables market, operators face a tough
time building brand identity. At stake? Their long-term survival.
Michele Martin questions current strategies
It seems hard to believe now, but the jury was out when WCRS unveiled
its ads for Orange nearly two years ago. The launch ad, with its
swimming baby and the line, ‘The future’s bright, the future’s Orange’,
provoked more than a few ‘it’s a lemon’ swipes.
But that was back in April 1994, and things have changed. The ad
strategy that once failed to charm won last December’s Millward Brown
awareness study with a sector-beating score of 90 per cent.
In the cluttered world of mobile phone advertising, Orange has made its
mark by doing what others have not: supported one agency and strategy
with a consistent media spend. Its advertising peaked last year with a
pounds 13.7 million above-the-line spend - the highest in the market.
Orange’s rivals - giants Cellnet and Vodafone and smaller Mercury One-2-
One - have experienced fluctuating budgets, agency changes and new
advertising strategies that have left them with respective awareness
levels of 65 per cent, 59 per cent and 53 per cent.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the competition finds itself having
to congratulate Orange publicly. ‘I suppose it’s done quite a good job,’
Terry Barwick, director of corporate affairs for the Vodafone Group,
concedes. Mike O’Reilly, Cellnet’s account director at Abbott Mead
Vickers BBDO, simply comments: ‘Orange is doing extremely well.’
All four players are gritting their teeth and preparing for what is
likely to be the bloodiest year in the sector’s history.
Last month, Vodafone appointed BMP DDB Needham for its first big
branding campaign (Campaign, 19 January). And with One-2-One currently
analysing the results of its first strategy through Bartle Bogle
Hegarty, and Cellnet emerging from a six-month advertising rethink by
Abbott Mead, the sector is poised for radical change.
The reason is simple. Although the UK’s current 9.3 per cent mobile
phone penetration is projected to reach 25 per cent by the year 2000,
with new subscribers enlisting at the rate of 450,000 to 500,000 per
quarter, the market cannot sustain four networks. The next few years
will not only see a scramble for profits but a fight for the last three
seats in the sector’s game of musical chairs. The two market leaders,
Cellnet and Vodafone, have 2.3 million subscribers each, compared with a
few hundred thousand each for Orange and One-2-One.
Steve Dunn, the sales and marketing director for One-2-One between 1994
and 1995 and now commercial director of Lease Plan, says: ‘There are too
many players in a market, which only has room for three brands, so one
will have to go.’
Merrill Lynch’s telecommunications analyst, Simon Carrington, comments:
‘The question facing the consumer is no longer ‘Do I need a mobile
phone?’ but ‘What sort shall I get?’ The amount of advertising in the
mobile phone sector is going to keep going up in an emerging battle for
The scramble for new agencies and new ads is a long-overdue attempt by
the ‘Big Four’ to build brands in a marketplace where they are sadly
lacking - even though adspend in the sector rose by 42 per cent, from
pounds 39 million to pounds 55.5 million, between 1993 and 1995
The reasons for the branding failures are numerous. The first mobile
licence holders, Cellnet and Vodafone, were cocooned in an effective
duopoly between 1984 and 1992, which meant they could afford to sideline
advertising in favour of dealer marketing. As a result, when One-2-One
and Orange received their licences in 1992 both were faced with the
prospect of targeting a consumer market that had never been approached
But it would be wrong to blame poor branding entirely on circumstance.
In part, the sector’s marketing inadequacies are self-inflicted. Roy
Warman, joint chief executive of Leopard, observes: ‘To some extent,
Vodafone and Cellnet played wait-and-see when One-2-One and Orange came
along. They both underestimated the power of mass communication because
neither of them saw it as the primary driving force in their own
businesses up to that time.’
One-2-One and Orange admit that their initial campaigns didn’t always
capture the imagination. ‘It wasn’t very likeable,’ says Steve
Greensted, the then managing director of Woollams Moira Gaskin O’Malley
and now director of Osprey Park, referring to One-2-One’s Robert Lindsay
and Beatrice Dalle strategy. ‘Orange was mocked and derided at first,’
Will Harris, the account director on Orange at WCRS, says.
That the major players understand the need to rethink what they have
been doing is beyond dispute. A Consumers’ Association report due in
March will show that one in four subscribers regret their choice of
The task will not be straightforward for operators who still have to
pick up the pieces from their first attempts at advertising before they
can start again.
On a collective level, this means clarifying exactly what a network
sells compared with the rest of the mobile phone fraternity, including
service providers such as Peoples Phone and retailers like London Car
Telephones. In 1994, this tier obscured the networks’ messages with
largely retail ads, which contributed 45 per cent to the sector’s total
Here, at least, there is the promise of some change. With increased
umbrella activity by the networks, the middle men seem increasingly
content to bask in the knock-on effect of their efforts, with third-
party adspend dropping to 29 per cent of the total in 1995.
On top of this, the networks are becoming increasingly subtle at
creatively positioning themselves away from the front-end boys. But
everyone, even Orange, has some fall-out to handle. Top of the list is
WMGO’s launch campaign was vulnerable because it was the first to target
mobile phones at a mass market. But, in the end, it ran into problems
because of tariffing. Its unique promise of free off-peak calls made it
attractive to a down-market audience, who then clogged the network after
Dunn explains: ‘The advertising message that this was a phone for the
Ordinary Joe ended up exacerbating the quality problems we were having.
The overall signal One-2-One sent out was that this was a trivial
The challenge for BBH is to maintain the network’s popularity, while
also boosting subscriptions among heavy users. It is a positioning that
the agency’s managing director, Simon Sherwood, believes is viable: ‘We
still give free weekend calls, but it’s something we no longer focus on.
Cheapness is a downward spiral and you don’t have to drive mobile phones
upmarket to succeed. Telephony is mass market.’
But One-2-One still needs to get its total marketing proposition right
this time around if it is to stay the course. It faces stiff competition
for the broad mass market from both Cellnet and Vodafone.
And while neither of these has the stigma of being a ‘trivial’ brand,
each carries advertising baggage of its own. With a duopoly mind-set and
a tendency towards generic, middle-of-the-road advertising, both will
have to be careful not to hand the competition an advantage on a plate.
Harris illustrates the problem: ‘In a way, it was useful that they did
the kind of advertising that they did. It forced us to do something
different.’ On current showings, both still have some way to go to prove
things have changed significantly.
All of which seems to leave the pip-squeak, Orange, ahead of the race
for brand domination, although the course ahead may not be as smooth as
it seems. Because it pitched itself as relatively mass medium, some
believe it may be heading too far upmarket. Such home truths are
uncomfortable in a sector that still has everything to play for.
Each network faces its own watershed. For Orange, the imminent share
flotation will keep up the pressure to maximise its customer base, while
One-2-One’s roll-out beyond the M25 region and towards the South Coast
will prove make or break. For Cellnet and Vodafone, the switch from
analogue to digital in the coming months will test customer loyalty. It
is brand or bust time for all four and the ultimate price is a place in
After years of Saatchi and Saatchi handling the print account and
Leopard creating broadcast advertising, Vodafone put the lot into
Leopard in 1994. Then, last month, BMP DDB Needham landed the pounds 15
million branding task for Vodafone. To date, the nearest the brand has
got to having a consistent theme is Leopard’s line: ‘Nobody goes further
to keep you in touch’, which was introduced into its ‘steps’ commercial
and extended into posters. Aside from this, the strategy has otherwise
taken a scatter-gun approach. Last year’s only television work starred
Dawn French in a Cinderella spoof. Irritated by the pip-squeak, Orange,
was Vodafone more concerned last year with taking its smaller rival to
the High Court than signing off new campaigns?
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO created Cellnet’s genitally-challenged ‘netman’
as an early branding device to illustrate the network’s 98 per cent UK
coverage. But having survived the company’s first personal user ads in
1993 - where John Cleese and Ronnie Corbett squared up in humorous
commercials to Orange and One-2-One - he was scrapped to move the brand
away from issues of geography. New ads, from September 1995, pushed
Cellnet’s everyday uses. One execution showed a policeman on his way
home telling his son a bedtime story; another showed a pregnant woman
talking to her husband as he catches the train home.
Woollams Moira Gaskin O’Malley’s soap opera series starring Beatrice
Dalle and Robert Lindsay captured the public’s attention as the first
mobile phone campaign to target the consumer mass market rather than
businesses. But ‘The mobile phone for every day, for everyone’ campaign
ultimately lacked charm and the account passed to Bartle Bogle Hegarty
in 1995. BBH’s ads continue WMGO’s popularist tack by featuring users in
everyday situations, including one where girls in a bar summon their
Romeo waiter using a mobile phone.
As the only campaign to have been planned and executed by one agency,
WCRS’s ads have built the fourth mobile phone network on a hi-tech
positioning. Orange was launched in 1994 with a commercial featuring a
naked baby ushering in a new era of wire-free communication - as with
Cellnet’s ‘netman’, the baby’s penis was electronically removed for the
TV watchdogs. Orange added depth to its proposition in later ads. The
summer 1995 and Christmas ads featured Vietnamese cyclists in visual
analogies that intended to illustrate product benefits, such as digital
THE CONTENDERS: WHO SPENT WHAT
Company Spend pounds m Spend pounds m Spend pounds m
1993 1994 1995
Cellnet 9.1 11.5 11.2
Hutchison 3.5 7.8 13.7
Mercury 0ne-2-0ne 0.9 7.3 7.1
Vodafone 11.0 4.7 7.2
Total market * 39.0 58.0 55.5
Source: Register-MEAL, 12 months to September 1995, * total market