BT needs to find another Big Idea

The fact that new BT chief executive Ben Verwaayen singled out a desire to “delight” the customer as a key corporate aim shows what a mountain the lumbering old behemoth is expected to climb. The only delight most BT consumers are likely to have experienced over the years are a series of first-class advertising campaigns, bent on persuading us – by and large successfully – that we should use the telephone more frequently. These, at least, were limited compensation for extortionate telephone bills and underwhelming customer service, which were also an integral part of the brand experience.

But all this is to change, and not merely because Verwaayen says it should. BT’s Big Idea – the warm corporate feeling wrapped round those land-line ads – has run into the sand and the telecoms giant must now struggle to find a replacement.

Land-line telephony, and BT’s quasi-monopolistic hold over it, will of course continue to be an important part of corporate life. But while a cash cow, it is also an area of perceived long-term decline, less and less suitable as a symbol of corporate prowess. When we look around for what else could provide the missing fabric, the answer is not easily forthcoming. BT, partly because of regulatory interference, has bungled its attempt to become a front-runner in the sexier area of mobile communications. Similarly, its recent vain-glorious attempts to become a global brand name have an Ozymandian ring about them.

So it’s no great surprise to find Verwaayen resorting to the mantra of customer satisfaction. The problem here is that contrition for past complacency, while laudable, is not enough. Customer satisfaction isn’t a unique property that the BT brand can hope to “own”, even if it succeeds in rising to the challenge. And that’s a big if, not simply on account of BT’s bureaucratic telecoms heritage, but because of the strengthening opposition in BT’s land-line heartland. No longer are we talking of Mercury or debt-laden cable outfits, but increasingly self-confident utility companies, such as Centrica and LE Group, which are able to bundle telecoms with a swathe of other offers, including financial services. Admittedly, their own record on customer service is far from perfect, but they are well resourced, aggressive, and fast-learning.

Another way forward for the BT brand is to harness itself to broadband technology. This seems to be the underlying intention of the so-called Gladiator ad campaign, which portrays BT as a cutting-edge communications company, as much at home with the Internet as it is with the telephone. A more baroque expression of this aspiration may be found in the recent public musings of BT chairman Sir Christopher Bland, who toyed with the idea of his company becoming a video-on-demand broadcaster. Later, it transpired he had been “misunderstood” and was merely pitching BT as a content provider. The seed, however, has been planted.

A pity its growth prospects may be stunted. Much of BT’s prowess in this area depends on a continuing stranglehold over the “local loop”, which effectively blocks rivals from offering a price-competitive alternative. But that is not a state of affairs which can be expected to last much longer.

So what is the BT brand’s next Big Idea?

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