Media Forum: Does Sky need new brand ads?

Should Sky's broadband expansion affect its branding strategy, Alasdair Reid asks.

BSkyB doesn't exactly conform to the cliche of the media owner that doesn't understand (or worse, even despises) the whole notion of brand advertising. But then BSkyB is no ordinary media owner. It's not just a digital television platform operator and programme content creator, it is evolving into a communications company offering consumers both telephony and broadband internet access while also cementing its reputation as a technological innovator, pioneering the likes of high- definition TV and changing the way we consume the medium via the Sky+ box.

All of which is marketed in a thoroughly integrated fashion. Integrated, not only in the sense that there's a lot of below-the-line activity to accommodate, but also in the sense that above-the-line campaigns for various product offerings must dovetail with the company's "umbrella" brand advertising.

It's a big job - and, given that the budget has risen steadily over the past few years, ultimately rewarding for the right ad agency. Last week, a new agency was asked to take on the challenge - WCRS, which was awarded the account following a pitch against Grey. The account had come into play following a breakdown in the relationship between Sky and the incumbent, United, in October.

WCRS is believed to have offered a brand vision focusing on three core Sky activities - television, broadband and telephony. Broadband is, of course, the new factor in this mix, and the media industry has duly been fascinated by this (as it is perceived) new departure.

The company's centre of gravity is shifting significantly. Does this have implications for Sky's marketing - and particularly its brand advertising?

Clearly it does, Shaun McIlrath, the creative director of Hurrell and Dawson, argues. He adds: "The Sky brand is very powerful so there's no reason why it shouldn't be able to extend into new areas - as the Virgin brand, for instance, has extended to transport and beyond. But what they have to decide is the common nature of the Sky experience across all of those areas."

He also cautions Sky to look at what happened to Carphone Warehouse, which based its appeal on being a consumer champion - so, with TalkTalk's free broadband offer (and its early problems), the company quickly turned into a consumer villain.

"Sky doesn't tend to make the same sorts of emotional promises - they tend to be more rational. Its brand advertising in the past has been about the promise of what they can deliver, and they are in a position to do more of that, provided, of course, that they can get the product to market," he states.

David Cuff, a broadcast consultant, has never been wholly convinced by the consistency of Sky's umbrella brand proposition. He explains: "From a consumer point of view, Sky absolutely has the technology credentials as far as things such as Sky+ and HDTV are concerned. The benefits of those are understood and enjoyed, but it's a different story when you look at the content side. The Sky Sports brand still has a fantastic reputation, but Sky One continues to struggle in the entertainment mix."

However, he thinks that in contemplating its new marketing course, Sky needs to be patient and see how its broadband proposition pans out. He says: "If you have a strong message and you fail to deliver, as we've seen in the past with ntl and Telewest, that can wreak havoc with your overall brand."

WCRS faces a tough, but interesting, challenge. Louise Jones, the executive strategy director of PHD, agrees. She believes that, historically, Sky has struggled to engage consumers with its overall brand. She explains: "As Sky gears up to cater for all our entertainment and communications needs, the problem is that this is all actually quite complicated stuff, and I suspect the brand is not really robust enough to properly house and propagate it yet. I would bet that for many people, the brand is still primarily about a dish and football, and perhaps a personal video recorder. However, if Sky builds a strong brand, I believe people will come, but more importantly, given with the inherent churn issues in this business, people will stay."

Simon Mathews, the founder of Rise Communications, agrees - but he also maintains that delivery of quality services far outweighs any brand communications issues. He concludes: "The key business challenge is operational, particularly within the new businesses, and the key communication challenge will be to convert those consumers of new Sky products into evangelists."

YES - Shaun McIlrath, creative director, Hurrell and Dawson

"With consumers demanding bespoke packages rather than having to sign up for everything, operators like Sky will be communications management providers - so they will have to move beyond a price and content message."

MAYBE - David Cuff, broadcast consultant

"If the company can become a credible player in the broadband sector, the branding job will be to persuade consumers that Sky can deliver the same level of service and added value as it does in the areas of Sky+ and HDTV."

YES - Louise Jones, executive strategy director, PHD

"Within the complex and competitive environment, Sky has to get people to engage with it as a brand and not just a platform with multiple products, otherwise people will feel bombarded by product messages and will just switch off."

MAYBE - Simon Mathews, founder, Rise Communications

"The real issue is operational delivery. Failure to meet consumer expectation will create negative advocacy that will render ads and supportive editorial (within News International titles) redundant."

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