The high cost of a mobile identity

The overall economic picture may be increasingly ominous, but some areas of marketing services continue to buck the trend. One is research: robust results this week from Taylor Nelson Sofres – one of the biggest international operators – underline the continuing need for market intelligence, even during a downturn. Another lucrative area must be corporate identity – for those lucky branding consultancies, that is, who have contracts with the mobile telecommunications market.

What with plummeting share prices and the massive debt overhang incurred after buying 3G licences, it might be thought that telecoms had troubles enough without plunging into an inordinately expensive rebranding extravaganza. But the companies involved have little choice. They are tied by an inflexible timetable to implementing a strategy drawn up in palmier, more optimistic times.

So it is that next year, two of the UK’s four existing mobile networks will rebrand. BT Cellnet will become O2 and Deutsche Telekom-owned One 2 One will be renamed T-Mobile. While the other two networks – Vodafone and France Telecom-owned Orange – are not changing their names in the UK, their brands are to be rolled out in Europe. At the same time Hutchison, original owner of Orange, will launch an international 3G brand.

The marketing programmes differ in detail. France Telecom, for example, seems wedded to shock treatment. Having bought UK-based Orange only last year, it has already introduced the new masterbrand to France and Denmark. More tactfully, Vodafone is prefixing its name to various recent international acquisitions, with a view to quietly dropping the suffix later.

But whatever the differing detail, the pattern is clear. Mobile telecoms companies are engaged in a frantic scramble to gain credible global branded presence before they find themselves swallowed up in a further, brutal round of consolidation. That, at least, is the view of industry experts. Some believe that within ten years only two networks, Vodafone and Orange, will survive. Even those with a less apocalyptic turn of mind readily concede that the mmO2 (BT Wireless) spin-off – of which O2 is a part – is simply being plumped up for sale, probably to Spain’s Telefonica. And that Hutchison will exit from its 3G venture in much the same way it did from Orange: when it has made some money.

So, are an awful lot of marketing pounds being burnt for no good purpose? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, in that some companies will shortly disappear from the map whatever they do: the only issue is establishing the timing and price of their exit. No, in the sense that a substantial and effective marketing investment is now part of the membership price in the rapidly evolving mobile telecoms club. Without it, consumers are at a loss to understand the quality – still less the increasingly complex benefits – of what they are being offered.

For the time being, then, brand consultants can breathe a sigh of relief. Their jobs are safe.

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