Divisive Dome stays backstage in NMEC’s millennium campaign

Brace yourselves for the biggest product launch since the National Lottery – starting this Christmas, with a budget of 30m and a brief not just to sell us something, but to improve us and inspire us. And those aren’t the only unusual things about it.

The brand already enjoys almost 100 per cent awareness without a penny being spent on advertising yet. The product itself won’t feature in the advertising for almost a year – almost as if the organisation involved is embarrassed by it. And the first wave of TV advertisements (a 1.5m burst which breaks around Christmas and the New Year) may be the first to feature an invitation to visit a Website as its call to action.

The brand in question is, of course, the Millennium Dome. The New Millennium Experience Company and its marketing director, Sholto Douglas-Home, are now devising the strategy which will persuade more than 12 million of us, and perhaps as many as 17 million, to visit Greenwich in the year 2000.

They’re quite confident they can do it – after all, the Lisbon Expo this summer exceeded its forecast attendance of 8 million by 25 per cent in just four months, and that in a country with a population of only 9 million, a fraction the size of Britain’s.

But the task is not a simple one. Like the National Lottery, awareness of the Dome is huge. But unlike the Lottery, many people’s perceptions of it are probably rather negative, after months of controversy, carping and widespread outrage at the cost.

Douglas-Home and his team must first overcome those negative perceptions. They also have to make it clear that the country’s millennium celebrations are about more than a riverside visitor attraction in a rundown corner of London.

Alongside the Dome itself, the company is organising a national programme of events which has grown steadily in significance as more and more of its commercial sponsors – organisations like BT, M&S and Tesco – have chosen to put their money into things which have little direct connection with the Dome.

Last week Douglas-Home outlined his strategy. He has defined a brand which takes its cue from consumers’ hopes and beliefs for the next millennium. We see it, apparently, as a period of transition, renewal and redirection, a time when everyone can come together to build a better future – a time, in the phrase adopted as company’s corporate positioning, “to make a difference”.

So the 60-second launch commercial will, I understand, look back over mankind’s achievements in the past thousand years before looking forward to the next. It is meant to be inspiring, with an element of BA’s famous Manhattan TV ad, or BT’s Stephen Hawking commercial. It makes no mention of the Dome.

The closest it gets to a direct plug is an invitation to visit the NMEC’s Website (www.dome2000.co.uk) where visitors can enjoy an animated 3D voyage around and over the Dome – and eventually inside it as well.

Earlier this month the NMEC recorded 1.1 million hits on its Website. Clearly, the Net is a suitably futuristic medium, and at this stage using it to build an e-mail database and invite participation in the national programme is a lot cheaper than setting up a fully-fledged telemarketing operation.

Nonetheless, the latest figures suggest only 16 per cent of the UK adult population have used the Internet in the past six months. The NMEC is breaking new ground for a mass-market brand by relying so heavily on the Net at these early stages.

This initial burst of activity is meant, according to Douglas-Home, to communicate the idea that the millennium is a catalyst for change and improvement, and not just a big party. “That’s the brand essence,” he says. “The whole raison d’être for the millennium experience. People have not quite embraced the fact that a new millennium comes round only once in a thousand years.”

Once the first phase is over, Douglas-Home and his team will move on to the second phase, which will last from January to July next year. This will promote the national programme, less through conventional advertising, more through mailshots, publications and partnerships with commercial organisations, sponsors and media organisations. The Northcliffe regional newspaper chain has appointed a “millennium champion” on each title, a lead the NMEC would like more media organisations to follow.

Only in September 1999 will advertising begin for the Dome itself, along with ticket sales. By that time, no doubt, the NMEC hopes we’ll all be in a fever of anticipation, eager for that once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit Greenwich, whether by tube (42 per cent of visitors), coach (12 per cent), riverboat ten per cent) or bike (one per cent).

No-one has ever tried to do anything quite like it before. Whether they succeed will be down to Douglas-Home – but also down to the quality of the experience inside the Dome. They promise to tell us more about that next month.

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