Will lightning strike twice for The Number?

Deregulation frequently offers an excellent opportunity for creating new brands. There are few better recent examples of this than the privatisation of telephone directories, following the dissolution of BT’s 192 monopoly in 2003.

Now, there are over 200 providers in a market worth nearly £250m, each relying on branding to differentiate whatever minute point of saleable difference it might have from its competitors.

Admittedly, many of these providers don’t add up to much. In fact, a mere three brands, Conduit’s 118 888, BT’s 118 500 and The Number’s 118 118 account for over 90% of the market’s value.

But what brands. It’s no exaggeration to say that one of them provides what is probably the best case study of branding effectiveness to be found anywhere in recent years. The 118 118 runners, as their creator WCRS (quite justifiably) never ceases to remind us, have a bit of everything brand empathy could require.

Marathon Runners
They agreeably personify what for most people is a nerdy and rather boring subject – telecoms is bad enough, but directory enquiries is positively desiccated. They’re humorous, which always plays well in advertising. Their silly “Dave Bedford” sameness create a useful mnemonic for the 118 numerical symmetry.

And most useful of all, the runners are hugely versatile as a branding property. On the one hand, they easily bestride the multi-channel marketing world, all the way from advertising, to the internet, to experiential marketing. On the other, their appeal is sufficiently universal to make brand extension a feasible idea.

And yet, herein lies a problem. Brand communications, however brilliant, can only be as good as the brand it supports. Five years down the line, 118 118 finds itself at a crossroads and seems uncertain exactly which route it should take in building its brand.

True, we’ve had the launch of its “Ask Us Anything” service back in the spring, but either this is doomed to remain a novelty value-added service or, if taken mainstream, it will become colossally expensive to resource, since its effective competitor is Google.

More controversially, The Number has come up with an ambitious proposal to launch a mobile phone directory service. Given that the new service will encompass consumer as well as business numbers, it is understandably coy about the details of the service. Business mobile numbers are widely regarded as public property, and it is not difficult to find them on, say, Yell’s 118 247 service. Consumer numbers are a different matter altogether.

Got your mobile number?
To begin with they are ringed with hoops of overlapping regulatory jurisdiction involving the EU, Ofcom, PhonePayPlus and others. It is far from clear what clearing the restrictions would involve.

More daunting, however, are the suspicions of the public.

No doubt, if the mobile directory gets off the ground, consumers will find it useful. But, for good reason, they are as wary of putting their own mobile numbers in the public domain as they are about the purposes of speed traps, surveillance cameras and rfid tags: you never know who’ll abuse the information. Consequently, any mobile phone directory will involve a massive exercise in permission marketing whose successful outcome must remain doubtful.

Great brands, like great first novels, are a rarity in themselves. However, it’s the infinitely more difficult second great idea which proves whether the first was real genius or just a spectacular fluke, however.

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