BT keeps talking but it still isn’t getting the message

BT’s new ad is spectacular, but says nothing about brand value. The former monopoly must stop generic telecoms advertising and tell us about itself.

BT’s new “stadium” commercial is profound, award-winning (except that the ad agency, St Luke’s, doesn’t enter itself for awards) and utterly useless. The new commercial, directed by Ridley Scott’s son, is set in a stadium where various members of the public broadcast their services or needs to the audience. It includes the radical new endline, “more connections, more possibilities”.

The new ad will probably generate a great deal of media chatter, not least for a really gut-churning moment when a mother clutches her child and asks: “Ever felt overwhelmed?” Women in the crowd stand up spontaneously – Spartacus meets the Mexican Wave.

Like previous campaigns it will probably achieve high levels of brand recognition and do well in those meaningless ad awareness surveys, because it represents a vast amount of money spent on providing the British public with entertaining and irrelevant advertising.

How apt that the telecoms giant chose a Roman arena as the centre of its new advertising campaign. Roman emperors used gladiatorial arenas to entertain their subjects while their empire fell apart around them.

The ignoble departure of BT chairman Sir Iain Vallance focused the eyes of the City and the media on BT’s failed corporate strategy. The new chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, has set about reducing a debt equivalent to that of a small country. However, so far, the real villain of the piece has remained quietly on the sidelines outside the arena: BT’s marketing department, which has failed to stem the dramatic decline in its market share and failed to win new markets. BT has lost 46 per cent of the market share in fixed call revenue since privatisation. In the past four years alone it has lost 16 per cent. In 1994 its market share was falling by an average of two per cent a year, by 2000 this had increased to about 4.5 per cent a year. And in one year from 1997 to 1998 it lost 20 per cent of the market share in international call revenue to rivals. It has also failed to gain dominance in Web and wireless services, losing market share to rivals such as Energis.

The essential reason for these failures is the inability of BT and its service companies to see the difference between telling people what it does and offers, and actually building a brand. The result is that BT is not a brand, it’s a telecoms company with a poncey logo.The company that spends about &£85m a year telling us to communicate has failed to do just that for nearly 20 years.

The rot set in with the “Beattie” commercials in the Eighties. Though the ads were funny and generated acres of tabloid chatter, they said nothing at all about BT’s brand values. The ads were created around the time of privatisation, when competition had already begun to bite. The call to action in the ads was simple – use the phone more. The assumption was that BT equals telephones so, ipso facto, by using the phone more you are using BT more. BT never explained why its service was better than or different to the rest. It continued to behave like a nationalised industry.

Little changed when Bob Hoskins took over promotional duties, except the ads were no longer funny and BT displayed a more patronising attitude towards customers. Bob Hoskins instructed its customers, like an annoying father, to spend more time on the phone because “It’s good to talk”. BT was virtually telling men off for not spending enough money on its product.

BT got so puffed up with self-importance that it even put a rubber alien forward as its spokesman. The ET ads were the ultimate in advertising kitsch, and made the phone giant a laughing stock.

The company has never shaken off the idea that it is the only player in the market, and has refused to recognise either the competition or the need to develop its own distinct identity.

Other areas of BT’s business suffer the same fate. BT’s sister company BT Cellnet, which sponsors media event of the year Big Brother, also helps its competitors. Not only do the sponsorship breaks promote the show rather than the brand, the two flies also text each other, something which you can do as a member of any mobile phone company. Like the BT commercials these are great generic ads for telecommunications but have nothing to do with the individual brand.

BT isn’t alone. Other award winning ads have failed to accentuate brand values, Barclaycard, for instance, told us that you could use it in lots of countries and get insurance on the card – obviously you can, with all Visa and MasterCard credit cards. Direct Line told us for years that you could get cheap car insurance over the phone, something which customers could also get from rivals.

But BT is unique in the amount of money it spends and in the fact that it has never attempted to, let alone succeeded in, establishing a point of difference in the market.

The latest ad campaign by St Luke’s does it again. It is a generic campaign for the new broadcast environment of telecoms – the Internet.

It is a generic ad for telecoms companies, and the kinds of services they provide. The Stadium is a metaphor for broadcasting. This is the new age of telecoms. It is no longer about one-to-one communications, but also one-to-many. The problem is, there is nothing at all unique to BT about this. All telecoms companies do it, and many do it better at a much cheaper price.

Maybe BT and its affiliates should learn that, while the world may have “more connections” and “more possibilities”, sometimes less works better.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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