After taking the directory enquiries market by storm, The Number 118 118 is plotting to become a wider information portal. By Ian McCawley
The Number 118 118’s decision to hand its marketing duties to innovation director Mark Evans (MW last week) demonstrates the company’s determination to extend the brand beyond its market-leading position in the directory enquiries sector. “We want people to be able to ask us anything,” says Evans.
While The Number admits the directories market is in decline overall, it is bullish about its own prospects for further growth. It boasts a 42% share in terms of usage, ahead of previous monopoly holder BT at 26%, with its 118 500 service (Ofcom). Yell Group, in the final stages of an advertising review said to be worth &£20m, lags well behind, with just 5% dialling 118 247.
118 118’s mission from the outset was to establish itself as the most memorable number for consumers in a dull and crowded market. It hired WCRS, an agency with telecoms expertise, which included the launch of Orange. The subsequent campaign, featuring the moustachioed and 118 118-emblazoned “runners”, was an instant success.
Evans says: “Buying the number 118 118 played an important role for sure. But we had to have marketing magic as well. We used the runners from the outset as an iconic, radically different approach to making a mundane category vibrant – bringing our brand to the forefront.”
WCRS chairman Robin Wight adds: “We had to get people to remember 118 118 before the battle started, so we began advertising five months before the switchover from 192. We know human brains are wired to remember faces more than names, so we came up with the characters to ‘dial into’ people’s minds.
“The property of the advertising is very flexible and it is something we can build on. It goes beyond just runners – we call them ‘the boys’.”
The latest campaign by WCRS, based on the 1980s’ action series The A-Team, complete with adapted theme music, has further established The Number as a problem-solving service, says Evans. But the runners have already been used beyond simple advertising, and are featured in sponsorship idents for Channel 4 drama Lost. A similar idea is also being used to roll out The Number’s 118 218 service in France, where it has been adapted by French agency Agence V, with strategic advice from WCRS.
Some observers do feel The Number’s UK success has been based on the acquisition of the most memorable combination of numbers and a cute advertising idea – in effect, a product of style over substance. Yet Alan Atkin, senior consultant at Origin Brand Consultants, counters: “Its success cannot be explained in terms of naming alone. The advertising has, more than anything, contributed to major brand appeal and created stand out. The key to future success will be consistent branding allied to the delivery of a quality product.”
One industry analyst agrees that the company must expand its services to stave off decline: “The problem is, why would anyone who now has access to Google and the like pay to get a number? It’s a no-brainer, so The Number needs to build in added value.”
To this end, it has already launched price comparison tracker Price Finder and train time services, as well as TXT//AD, allowing advertisers to include their details in text messages sent to consumers who have asked for a competitor’s contact number.
Evans uses this analogy: “Tesco has one hour to deliver brand experience; we’ve got 60 seconds. The exciting challenge for the future is to bring product and advertising closer together. We’re conscious of the competitive environment, but the main threat is probably not BT or Yell, it’s the alternative sources of information.”
Evans says that the company wants to move “beyond numbers” and eventually create an information portal, effectively a one-stop shop accessible through voice calls, SMS, online and mobile devices. He reveals agents receive “millions” of calls asking for train and cinema times, and morning alarm calls, among other things. But he warns: “We need to be selective with content if we are to achieve what we imagine we can. There are steps to be taken first. If we can build trust and accuracy rates for the simpler things, then it’s possible.”
With former Orange marketing director Chris Moss and Mark Horgan, previously executive director at MFI, in the front line, The Number is preparing to step up the assault against its rivals. The success of the brand’s advertising to date has allowed 118 118 to run and run, but will it end up out of puff?
â¢ September 2001 Oftel opens the UK directory enquiries market to competition, phasing out 192 and introducing six-digit services beginning 118
â¢ December 2002 US parent company InfoNXX officially launches The Number 118 118 in the UK
â¢ August 2003 With the “runners” ads on air since March, 192 is switched off and 118 118 surprises everyone, including itself, by racing into first place. The UK becomes the only deregulated market where the previous monopoly holder – in this case BT – is not market leader
â¢ 2006 The Number 118 118 claims a 96% accuracy rate (tested by Ofcom) and answers 1 billion calls in less than three seconds, globally, each year