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  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

The Future Was Most Definitely Bright

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the Orange launch. Arguably one of UK’s greatest challenger brand success stories, Orange, along with One2One, transformed the UK mobile industry from an exclusive market dominated by tech speak to a service industry for the masses.

Next week it will also be 20 years since I walked through the doors of the Orange offices to start my career there; a journey which led me to working on the Orange brand in all four corners of the world but also strangely culminating in me being part of the team which recommended retiring the brand in the UK. It’s funny how things come full circle.

If you’ll forgive the nostalgia, I thought this was as good an opportunity as any to try highlight what I have always seen as being the key drivers behind Orange’s success as a brand. When you look at that success it was truly pheonomenal – from fourth entrant in 1994 to nearly 10 million customers by the turn of the millennium and market leader by 2002.

There’s always a risk of looking back through rose (or maybe Orange?) tinted glasses but for me three themes summed up the essence of what made the brand and the business so successful and they feel as relevant today as they were all those years ago.

1. A Clear Vision

Like many people of my generation, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the Orange launch campaign (see video above). It was five years before I would start working there and posters appeared seemingly everywhere telling us that The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange. The TV ad soon followed and everyone was talking about this new brand; What was it? Who was behind it? Such was the intrigue and fervour around it at the time, I have to confess I was a little disappointed when I found out it was just a mobile phone company! From Barry Davies to tabloid headlines some 20 years later, the campaign became embedded in British popular culture.

Forever in our culture... The Future's Bright

When I saw the job advert (yes, remember those days!) nearly five years later, I knew I had to work there and it was only experiencing the business first hand that you had a real sense for just how strong the vision and, dare I say it, purpose of the brand was. Brand Purpose as an expression has become somewhat tainted over the last year, becoming associated with ‘woke’ TV ads like Gillette or PR stunts like the Lush anti-police campaign. However, Simon Sinek’s Golden Circles are much more tightly defined than that; it’s about what makes you get out of bed in the morning, the purpose behind what you do.

Orange’s was clear. The vision of a Wirefree Future where communication was no longer constrained by wires. We would use this technology to transform peoples’ lives and, through doing so, become the world’s leading communication company. This is summed up beautifully by the Orange World vision film made at the turn of the millennium. This film is incredible to watch not least because it is nearly 20 years old but it presents a future of voice interfaces, e-commerce, video calling and tele-matics which we now take for granted but which back then was a pipe dream. Yes, some of it of course looks dated now from our smartphone-shaped world but it's a clear demonstration that building the future wasn’t just a brand line, there was a clearly thought out and well-articulated vision of how we could do it.

2. A Promise Delivered

I think one of the biggest mistakes that gets made when Orange is talked about is that it is seen as a victory for brand communications. Undoubtedly, the advertising was fantastic but it should not be forgotten that at the core of the Orange proposition was a desire to challenge industry conventions from a consumer perspective; to right the industry wrongs. The Orange internal mantra was that ‘a brand is a promise delivered’ i.e. the logo means nothing if you don’t deliver products and services which match the vision. If anything Orange was a classic case study at looking at all levers in the marketing mix - it’s easy now to forget that things like per second billing did not exist until Orange entered the market.

However, per second billing was just one of a handful of product and service innovations e.g. the network performance promise which refunded you if a call was dropped, the Orange Value Promise which matched competitor tariffs, the four hour phone replacement. In later years, these were followed by hugely innovative tariff and pricing innovations e.g. choose your own off peak, Everyday 50 (an hour of free calls for 50p a day - a tariff so good people never wanted to leave!) and Best Plan (Which automatically put you on the best deal).

As the market moved from acquisition to retention, Orange Wednesdays brought another dimension, offering Orange customers a genuine 'something for nothing' and was a again a great example of all the cogs working together - a great idea, innovative product execution and delivered through brilliant comms.

With award winning customer service behind everything (in those days, Orange routinely won the Which? Awards) it was clear who had the consumers’ back. However, as with most challengers, life became a lot tougher the bigger Orange got. It was easy to disrupt the market when you had a small installed base but, when you’re market leader, protecting revenues suddenly became more important than grabbing share. Some of those key points of differentiation became lost as all brands in the market started to look more and more alike. It's easy and lazy to blame this shift on the France Telecom acquisition but the reality is that it was more to do with market dynamics - the market in 2004 was a very different place to 1994.

3. Orange on the Inside

Finally, Orange’s brand strength came from a clear focus on internal culture. In the days of mass re-branding post the France Telecom acquisition, there was a very clear philosophy that a business had to be "Orange on the inside before it could become Orange on the outside".

In the early days this culture could border on cult-like fervour. A senior leadership team in matching black branded grandad shirts preaching to their congregration of eager employees in their own polo shirts, proudly emblazoned with the logo (I know it all sounds so 90’s now!) but the reality is it worked and was underpinned by a very clear set of internal behaviours . The fact that I can still recount THE FIRST (Teamwork ,Honesty, Effectiveness, Fun, Inspiration, Results, Simplicity, Trust) shows just how much it was drummed into us. But, clever acronyms aside, I consider myself very lucky to have worked with some of the smartest people I have ever come across in my career.

Orange had a unique culture where it was fine to challenge upwards, provided it was clear you had the brand’s best interest at heart. This seemed to attract a cohort of team members who were always happy to challenge the status quo. As with any ingrained culture this obviously had its down side – on a good day, this led to ground-breaking innovation but on a bad day it could lead to constant challenging of decisions which had already been made rather than getting into delivery mode.

So what can we learn?

Great brands aren’t built on communications alone; they have firm and solid foundations – a vision, a culture and a set of guiding principles for why they do what they do. Too often the marketing debate focuses on the elements which fall directly within our control – the creative treatment, the media mix. Inevitably this leads to an environment where the ‘branding’ becomes synonymous with communications and the brand is quickly seen as “marketing’s problem”.

Now more than ever, this lack of congruence between what a brand says and what it does becomes all to obvious to customers looking in, particularly in a service category. All too quickly it’s exposed for what it is – fatuous window dressing. Award winning advertising definitely helps but it's when all the elements of the proposition (vision, delivery and culture) come together that brands can really make their future bright...


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