BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster better known for its bullyboy tactics and stranglehold on UK pay-TV, is urging consumers to “believe in better” as part of a dramatic shift in marketing strategy (MW last week).
With two new TV ads – both of which feature the “Believe in Better” strapline that will be central to Sky’s marketing – the satellite giant seems not only intent on showing that it has a heart, but also that it is wearing it on its sleeve. One ad focuses on the continually improving Sky Plus PVR service, while the other highlights the fact that Sky has been carbon neutral since last year.
It is a striking change for Sky, according to industry experts, who suggest the new “fun” and “friendly” positioning is more becoming of arch-rival Virgin.
As one agency executive says: “In the past Sky could have been accused of doing ads that are a little empty, not quite human.” The source adds that slick executions, such as the “What do you want to watch” campaign in 2004, as well as strategic spots for services including Sky Sports, encouraged people to admire, rather than like, the brand.
FutureBrand deputy managing director Jasmine Montgomery goes further. She says the broadcaster has fought accusations of being “bland” and “boring” in the past but now seems to be bringing some of the magic of brands such as Honda, Disney and Virgin to the fore. She adds: “Sky seems to be taking on an almost Virgin-like brand positioning.”
Observers say the stance suggests that Sky is not only waking up to renewed competition in the shape of Virgin Media and BT, but is also making a fundamental effort to change its own business model and react to industry challenges.
David Muir, chief executive of WPP market strategy unit The Channel, says Sky has evolved because it has had to. “When it first launched it had to be brash and bright and full of impact,” adds Muir. “It was very original stuff, at times quite vulgar, but pretty effective. Then Sky developed marketing ‘by ransom’, as in ‘we have your football, if you want it then come to us’.”
However, following the appointment of Rupert Murdoch’s son James as chief executive in 2003 – a move that was much criticised at the time – the brand began to evolve. That started with the launch of “What do you want to watch?” which, despite criticisms, showed Sky was reinventing itself as an “entertainment brand”.
Now, though, Sky has evolved from offering just pay-TV to services such as broadband and home telephony. In this battleground, it faces stiff competition from the likes of BT and Virgin.
The cable company may be facing internal challenges of its own but commentators agree that it brings the first “entertainment branded” competition in Sky’s history. They also point out that BT is one of the most trusted British brands.
“This looks like a challenge to Virgin,” adds Montgomery. “Virgin’s positioning has always been around being a challenger brand. Sky is coming back at Virgin’s challenge with a real side punch. This is a gloves-off battle for the centre ground, with Sky talking about the greater good for the consumer, which has always been Virgin’s thing.”
Meanwhile, the See Speak Surf value campaign will continue to be backed with a heavy media spend, albeit under the “Believe in Better” strapline. WCRS chief executive Debbie Klein explains: “You must be able to deliver at an affordable price and that value message is a core part of Believe in Better.”
Sky must look to add to its existing subscriber base by convincing refuseniks to sign up to stand a chance of reaching its target of 10 million (it currently has just over 8 million), and also overcome changing market conditions such as losing its exclusive hold on the FA Premier League live rights. Muir believes both issues are key challenges for Sky. He says the “last slog” in the subscriber battle are people who have “actively considered and actively rejected” the brand, which goes some way to explaining the warmer, more conscientious approach.
Meanwhile, regulatory change such as the European Union’s decision to end Sky’s exclusivity of Premier League live rights, makes the playing field more level. “Appealing purely on rational grounds isn’t going to work,” adds Muir. “This is a big push. It is a really interesting move by Matthew [Anderson, group director of brand and marketing communications] and his team.”
Richard Huntington, former planning director at the now defunct United London, which held the advertising business before WCRS, thinks with the appointment of Anderson, who took over as Sky’s top marketer from Homeserve GB chief executive Jon Florsheim, comes a new sensibility.
“If the old order understood the power of the offer – free, free, free – he understands the power of the message,” says Huntington. “You could argue that there used to be an emotional hole at the heart of Sky. It was all about the deal, the product, subscription, undercutting rivals, nabbing pieces of content from other players. They’re now starting to realise that people need to want to have you in their homes. You are more than just a set-top box and satellite dish.”
Anderson, though, is adamant that Sky should not only be wanted but should also be recognised as the “fun”, innovative and “restless” company he believes it is. He says the WCRS campaign brings out the many success stories Sky has in its history and ties them all together.
“We are inviting customers to believe that not only can their entertainment be better but that with Sky there is an optimism and belief the world can be improved,” adds Anderson. “We want the communications to be simple but fun. We thought it important that ads had emotion to them.”
He says the aim now is to capture a broad cross-section all at once. “The key thing we felt was that great brands not only have price and product and the features right but they also stand for something. We know how they are going to act and behave over time. This will also challenge some people’s perceptions about Sky.”
It is a tall order for a company not naturally known for showing its softer side but history shows that when Sky puts its mind to – and its money behind – something, it should not be underestimated.
BSkyB: A brief history
1990 BSkyB formed following the collapse of BSB and the subsequent merger with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television
1992 BSkyB signs live television rights deal with the FA Premier League, keeping exclusive rights until the 2007/08 season
2001 Sky-Plus introduced
2003 James Murdoch appointed chief executive, replacing Tony Ball
2004 “What do you want to watch?” brand campaign launched, marking the start of Sky’s transition from satellite operator to “entertainment brand”
2006 Sky HD launched. Sky becomes carbon neutral
2006 Sky launches “free” broadband and outlines a renewed commitment to offering home phone services
2007 See Speak Surf, the first work by new agency WCRS, is unveiled to showcase the “suite” of Sky products
2007 NTL and Telewest relaunches under the Virgin Media brand, backed by a £20m launch campaign
2007 BT Vision TV service launch backed by the telecoms company’s biggest marketing push of the year
2007 Sky unveils “Believe in Better” brand strapline and positioning.