There is a surprising figure waiting to greet visitors to Orange's London offices. Towering next to the glossy reception desk is none other than Chewbacca, the huge and hairy wookiee who battled the Dark Side in the original Star Wars trilogy.
It's not the usual corporate welcome, but then the French-owned telecommunications company has carved out a reputation for itself over the past 11 years as a firm which likes to do things a little bit differently.
Sadly, this doesn't extend to actually hiring members of the Rebel Alliance to sign in its guests. The wookiee in question is – surprise! – a cardboard cut-out, propped up among the requisite pot plants to promote the upcoming release of the latest Star Wars instalment, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
The tie-up with Lucas film saw the offices transformed for a day into an outpost of a galaxy far, far away, with a host of Princess Leias and Yodas lunching on Chewbacca burgers and battling in the corridors with inflatable Lightsabers.
Lest people get the idea that this was just a bit of fun, the operation was all in the name of hard work – involving staff in brand activity is the best way to build brand engagement, it seems.
Orange's relationship with film has taken on a life of its own since it launched its two-for-one cinema ticket scheme last year – just as Alexis Dormandy stepped into the newly created role of chief marketing officer, heading marketing operations in the UK.
A year on, he is upbeat about the company's position in a market which has almost reached saturation point, with the battle for new customers reaching virtually impossible proportions.
"I genuinely feel extremely positive. I feel we have turned a corner," he says brightly.
"We're seeing O2 going through a big restructure, T-Mobile is killing itself merrily. I think we're on a curve towards sorting out a bunch of things."
Part of his bullishness may be down to Orange's deliberate change of tack, which shifts the focus from chasing those dwindling new customers, to nurturing its existing customers in a bid to keep churn to a minimum.
"The consequence of being a fast-growing industry is everyone got obsessed with who would get the next new customer. Now the market is saturated, all we're doing is spinning customers round in circles," he explains.
"I think the industry has been slow to spot that we've got customers spending a lot of money with us – look after them, then through word of mouth, you will find other people want to be part of that family."
The move is an attempt to build Orange's standing as a market leader in a marketplace crowded by brands such as Vodafone, O2 and T-Mobile.
"We're saying we're going to make a real position out of this and lead the market in terms of looking after existing customers,"
Dormandy insists. "That's how we will get our growth. We're very explicit: it's a very big change for the industry and we're absolutely going to lead it."
The idea itself may not be radical, but, as Dormandy points out, actually acting on it is more unusual. He is not afraid to pin his colours to the mast though.
"Everyone talks about being nice to customers – you'd be mad not to," he admits. "But we're committed to doing something tangible. We've got to earn people's trust. It would be easy to go out and make a massive promise, but you've got to deliver in bite-size chunks, then shout about it, rather than shout about it then hope no one's noticed you haven't delivered."
Having said that, the company's new strategy is laid on the table for all to see in its latest television advert. It features the now instantly recognisable duo from the Orange Wednesdays campaign climbing a mountain to seek the advice of a spiritual guru, who reveals that – wow – the customer should come first.
But how Orange actually intends to prove this to its customer base is the real challenge.
If passion and belief count for anything, then those millions signed up to Orange tariffs would seem to be in good hands.
Dormandy is a man obsessed with customer service. Every question he is asked serves as a loop back to his favourite subject.
And it's not just him. The whole company, he insists, wakes up each morning eager to enrich the lives of its customers.
"There's a real passion for sorting things out for the customer," he enthuses. "Most people would rather get up in the morning and work for something they believe in, than simply increase revenues. Particularly in an industry that has as many issues for the customer as ours does – it's a hell of a lot more motivating and is kind of the culture we try to have here. Most nice people are like that if you give them half a chance."
Nice people. It certainly seems to be a concept at the centre of Dormandy's marketing strategy; not only the people at head office but, more importantly, at the Orange shops that pepper most of the country's high streets and its many call centres.
Retail outlets and call centres are, says Dormandy, an "absolutely huge" part of the marketing mix. "It makes so much more of a difference if someone walks into a store and is able to sort their phone out than any advert we put out or any promotion," he claims.
Orange shops now boast "phone trainers" rather than sales staff – specially trained individuals whose sole aim in life is to advise customers on what handset to choose, which tariff will suit them best and to help navigate them around the bewildering array of mobile technology now available.
For example, Dormandy explains, 75% of people want to use their mobile to access emails, yet only 5% know how to.
"We're launching e-mail services at the moment to take all that complication away," he says.
In fact, this advisory, demystifying role forms the core of Orange's new marketing philosophy, which is that confused customers do not make good business sense.
It's one of the biggest challenges to the industry, says Dormandy, and is all about winning back consumers' trust.
"Customers are less trusting every year than the previous year. Particularly in a services industry, we've got to earn that trust. Mobile telecoms is so complicated. The products are complicated, the technology is complicated, the tariffs are complicated, the handsets are complicated and how you buy is complicated – you name it, it's complicated.
"Particularly because it's come out of a technology background, the industry has handed that to the customer and said ‘you deal with it'. A few people understand Bluetooth, WAP and 3G, but not that many.
There are about 247 different options of things people don't understand. The thing for the industry is to simplify and also to rebuild trust."
The most tangible example of Orange's efforts to make things easier for the technophobic consumer is its campaign for the latest big thing in telecommunications – 3G. The campaign's headline "3G-peasy" neatly sums up the idea the company is trying to push – that high-tech gadgets really can be made simple if they are explained in the right way.
The product launch last year was cautious, unlike those of its competitors Vodafone and 3, but Dormandy explains that the softly-softly approach is all part of its aim is to "help consumers understand 3G".
"We're trying to take all the complexity away from the customer and say ‘we'll handle it,' "he says.
About 2,000 of its phone trainers are to be transformed into "3G evangelists", while a dedicated 3G customer service number is to be set up as additional support.
"There are a number of things about 3G that stand out," Dormandy reflects. "The key insight is that customers don't really understand what 3G means. It's a case of ‘what can I do with it?'"
In fact, Dormandy insists, this is a vital point – it is not the 3G technology itself that is the really exciting "next big thing" in telecoms, but how it can be made useful to people's everyday lives.
"3G is the big thing, but the main issue is not 3G. It's like saying ‘the internet is the next big thing' – you now have an understanding of what it is, but you wouldn't have done 10 years ago. It only became relevant when you could use Google or iTunes," he explains.
"3G's just technology at the moment; what's going to be the next big thing is when we've got services on there that people want to use. We're right at the beginning of [developing] relevant services – location based services, entertainment, etc."
He recalls: "One of the really interesting bits, which sounds as dull as hell until you've used it, is video calling. I'd had no interest, but I happened to give a videophone to my goddaughter and I can now wave goodnight to her, which means a hell of a lot to me."
As a result of this kind of genuine, firsthand insight, Orange is offering up its 3G handsets on a two-for-one basis for the first three months, at the end of which one of those whizz-kid phone trainers can advise which tariff will suit you best.
As Dormandy points out: "3G is not much use if you don't have someone else to video call."
It is this sort of insight which seems to form a pillar of Orange's approach to business – finding the human angle among all the high-tech gadgetry and resisting the temptation to be carried away by the latest technology for its own sake.
Dormandy takes a similarly cautious view of the burgeoning market for data gathering and analysis in customer relationship management.
Telecommunications companies are, of course, in prime position to exploit the opportunities this area presents, as so much of the customer base is tied into contracts, providing the biller with a wealth of personal information. Promotional schemes like Orange Wednesdays widen the field even further, providing valuable feedback on customers' film viewing habits and, consequently, a peekhole on how they spend their leisure time.
Orange does indeed have a goldmine database of customer details, but, Dormandy insists, it is not there to be plundered – such information is to be treated with the utmost respect.
"We're trying to be pretty careful in the way we're using it. In fact, that's an understatement.
Using that to do profits exercises with the customers, you can convince yourself of your genius but it's not as necessary as you might think. You get to the point of [having to ask] ‘what's their personal information?'
"It's a bit ‘Big Brother's watching you'. With the sheer quantity of data out there, you can't analyse it all if you wanted to anyway. You don't go analysing to that level because you can't act on it."
The whole area of direct marketing has become fraught with data protection restrictions over recent years, with consumers now asked as a matter of course to opt into data collecting exercises, rather than having to spot heavily disguised get-out clauses as in the past.
But despite his concerns, Dormandy remains positive about the opportunities collecting and owning such information presents.
Of the increasingly strict restrictions, he says: "I actually think it's becoming easier. Previously companies tried to have their cake and eat it. Now it's quite clear that we have got to give control to the customer.
"If you start off with what you, as a customer, wants, you might like us to pre-programme what your local cinemas are so you don't have to fiddle about, but don't want to be mailed about every film that comes out. There's a bunch of work we're doing to try to work out what that translates into."
This tricky area is not confined solely to direct marketing from Orange itself, he points out. "That relates to spam as well – not from us, but from third parties. Texts turn up that look like they're coming from Orange, but they're not. We've got to learn how to manage that whole spam thing. A mobile is such a personal device, it feels like a real invasion. Give the consumer control; the challenge is how you do that."
While Orange might tread the line carefully – and Dormandy seems genuinely committed to the idea that such information should not be exploited purely for commercial gain – it does, of course, make some use of this valuable commodity.
"It's all about added value to the customers. You can design offers for customers which are a lot more relevant because you know how they behave."
For example, one of the more recent offers Orange has made to a section of its existing customers is free evening calls.
"We could only do that because we'd discovered a whole bunch of customers getting home, switching off their mobiles and using landlines.
"By using the capacity we have on the network at that time, we can make an offer that's better for the customer, builds loyalty with us and it's something that's well worth doing," he says.
"In the film area we can make recommendations of similar films – I think that's a reasonable use. There's a lot of clever things you can do.
"That's our job: work out what customers want, then work out a way of delivering it. That's what will make customers want to be part of the Orange family."
This philosophy goes back right to the birth of Orange, when it launched in April 2004 with the strapline: "The future's bright, the future's Orange".
The early adverts were certainly artistic and beautiful but a far cry from the quirky ads of today, which trade on humour rather than aesthetic. The message, however, remains the same, Dormandy insists.
"I think the original brand was superb. Way before anyone else had spotted it, they said ‘we're a consumer company, not a technology company'.
"The messages then were just as relevant, but we were expressing them in a different way. What Orange stood for then – those are the essential truths."
The essential truths may well be the same, but Dormandy cannot deny that the image of the brand has shifted dramatically since those early days.
Now it is arguably one of the most recognisable brands in the UK and part of that identity undeniably springs from its funny, knowing advertising in relation to its partnership with the British cinema and film industry.
In what many saw as a brave move, Orange took the step of embedding itself firmly in the cinema experience by reminding the audience to switch off their mobile phones.
Meanwhile, its Orange Wednesdays promotion has enlisted a starry line-up of famous Hollywood faces to support its marketing campaign, which have employed a raft of different mediums to target its film loving customers since its launch last year.
But it's not just film that represents Orange's foray into the world of arts and culture. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Orange Prize for Fiction, the UK's only annual book award for fiction written by women.
The literary involvement is backed up by relationships with library reading group networks, internal reading groups within the company, the Orange/Penguin Reading Group Prize and Orange Chatterbooks.
"When it started it was brand awareness," Dormandy admits. "But literature and film are very different. Both add value to customers in different ways.
"Literature is still a strong brand relationship. We have invested a lot in getting the Orange Prize for Fiction to where it is and people are very proud of it."
Film, meanwhile, forms a crucial part of an entertainment portfolio which also includes music and sport.
Indeed, the network's film offering goes way beyond simple two-for-one cinema tickets. A classic example is the capacity for customers to download famous film ringtones through the WAP portal, Orange World.
And the possibilities are expanding all the time. The latest service, exclusive to Orange thanks to its acquisition of virtual newscaster Ananova in 2000, allows mobile users to recruit the help of Star Wars characters to deliver text messages to their friends.
Known as Avatar messaging, the service exploits sophisticated text-to-speech technology, so that the chosen character pops up on said friend's mobile screen and speaks the texted message. It will eventually include an even wider selection of famous messengers through Orange World.
"People love that stuff," says Dormandy. "It keeps them amused on Friday nights when they've had too much to drink."
Dormandy demonstrated just how much fun it could be when he used it to transform himself into Darth Vader to deliver a message to delegates at a recent company conference.
Hopefully, staff members didn't read too much into the fact that he chose such a prominent member of the Dark Side to represent himself.
"Film has now become part of the product," he reflects.
"It started off as brand awareness but as opportunities became broader, so it's become more integrated in the product itself. We've got a massive lead in credibility in that area – I can't think of anyone else out there in that kind of position."
But however dedicated a Star Wars fan a customer may be, surely the bottom line goes back to that old adage "money talks"?
Customers may like the amusing extras but, ultimately, don't we all just want cheaper phone bills?
Dormandy insists not. But if we are to get the most from our phones, it is up to the industry to make them easier to use.
"There's a whole bunch of things that customers genuinely want: music on your phone, video calling, saying goodnight to your child in a foreign hotel. But will they?
Probably not, because they've got no idea how much it will cost them, and the booklet explaining it is 300 pages long.
"The industry is doing itself out of growth. If you solve those problems, the opportunities are incredible. So many things you see are huge opportunities and it's the industry's own fault if it doesn't deliver them."
One of those problem areas which urgently needs the industry's attention is sorting out the confusion surrounding tariffs.
"Price wars," Dormandy sighs. "In theory it might make things cheaper, but in practice I don't think it does. If you look at [adverts in] newspapers, everything's ‘free', but it's not really. You go, ‘I'm getting screwed here, but I don't know what to do about it.' I don't think that helps customers."
It's not just about offering appealing tariffs but explaining to consumers what exactly it is they are paying for, he claims.
The reason many people are left with a terrifying bill at the end of the first grace period is, he says, down to the fact that they are in fact paying for their "free" handset.
"People end up on the wrong tariff because they want a free handset, then they discover they are paying over the odds – but the reality is you're paying for the handset.
"Part of it is explaining what you're paying for. A lot of customers get new handsets every year. People think it's ridiculous charges – and it probably is for a phone call – but that's what you're paying for. I totally think that's Orange's responsibility. People should know what they're paying for."
While one part of the answer no doubt lies in equipping staff in the retail outlets to give customers the right advice, Dormandy insists that is not the ultimate solution.
"You shouldn't need to go into a retail outlet, you should be able to work it out without going in," he claims. "The solution to that is we've got to simplify tariffs."
The problem is, he explains, with "really customer-unfriendly" migration rules which prevent customers from switching handsets or tariffs once tied into a contract. But, with what seems like typical optimism, he says it is something Orange has well in hand.
"We have got a slightly cunning plan up our sleeve," he reveals somewhat coyly, refusing to elaborate further.
"At the moment, the industry is being complicit in confusing the hell out of everybody. There are so many bits that have to move and we're absolutely committed to moving them, but it won't happen overnight.
"We've got to take everyone with us – from handsets to carphones. So your question of ‘what's the future like for the industry?' It's very good, but at the moment we're stifling ourselves by confusing the trust issue.
"Once that's sorted, then what a happy world we'll live in – where all prices will be fair and people will be nice to each other.”
Career Path - Alexis Dormandy
2004 Chief marketing officer Orange UK
2003 Chief operating officer, digital services Egg Plc
2001 Associate partner/ deputy head, European M&A Practice Accenture
1998-2000 Group non-executive director Virgin Group
2000 Chief operating officer Virgin.com
1998 Director of corporate development Virgin Group
1996 Executive vice-president Virgin Cola USA
1995 Brand manager Virgin Cola UK
1993 Business analyst McKinsey & Company
This article was first published on Media Week