News Analysis: How did Orange lose its PR sparkle?

The UK's most popular mobile phone brand saw its top PRO leave suddenly last week. Tom Williams asks whether the takeover by France Telecom has dulled Orange's communications at a crucial time for the firm.

When Orange burst onto the scene in 1994, it was, as one senior PR consultant puts it, 'a breath of fresh air'.

The then fledgling mobile market was in danger of becoming technocratic - Orange, with 'The Future's Bright, The Future's Orange' tagline, put a stop to all that.

'Since its launch Orange was very successful in standing out as warm and cuddly rather than naked, cold technology,' says Mobile News editor Ian White. Since then, Orange has accrued an array of sponsorship properties, from last month's British Film Academy Awards to its recharge centre at the Glastonbury festival.

End of a comms era

But despite Orange's success in being the UK's largest mobile operator by customer number since 2001, some argue its PR has gone astray at precisely the moment when brand differentiation from rivals, such as Vodafone, Virgin Mobile and 3, is more important than ever.

Lexis PR chief executive Hugh Birley, whose agency was brought in to promote 3 last year, says: 'Orange is still quite respected as a brand but a lot of people are asking if it has lost its way.'

Some see the departure earlier this month of Orange's most senior UK PRO, PR sponsorship and events director Niamh Byrne (PRWeek, 18 March), as the end of an old guard that was swept aside in the comms and marketing restructure that began after France Telecom took the company private in 2003.

Journalists such as White and Independent City editor Damian Reece say the France Telecom acquisition began a palpable shift in Orange's comms to the more low-key style of media relations prevalent in France, where the media are seen as less aggressive and perhaps more susceptible to PR.

'Orange holds its own in the market,' says Reece. 'But I get the impression that as the consolidation within France Telecom has continued, Orange has retreated into itself from a PR point of view. It may be because of the French influence that it seems to be less interested in business press, but it is still interested in consumer and trade titles.'

Another agency PRO with experience of the sector observes an ongoing shift away from PR towards marketing: 'Orange is very good at big-brand publicity but doesn't seem to be doing much in the way of consumer product marketing and PR, such as product reviews with journalists.'

Orange declines to provide figures on PR spend but UK head of media relations Stuart Jackson vehemently denies there has been any France Telecom-led move to cut back on, or centralise, country-specific PR.

The company continues to use UK agencies Cake (for PR around music and film sponsorship), Trimedia Communications (for literature), Prodigy Communications (for consumer technology) and M&C Saatchi (promoting mobile content deals).

France Telecom and Orange's London-based group corporate PR team, led by group vice-president of external comms Marie-Christine Rouland, began to work together on financial, CSR, corporate and international issues after the French group took control in 2000. Rouland's role assumed all non-UK responsibilities formerly held by Byrne's predecessor Denise Lewis.

Jackson is also dismissive of criticism of past advertising endeavours, such as 2003's hard-nosed businessman ads, which were slammed by none other than former Orange CEO Hans Snook as 'absolutely the worst things I have seen'.

Jackson says: 'The campaign recognised the way in which the market had changed and was highly effective. It was about educating people on how to use their phones properly to get the most out of their handset. When 60 or 70 per cent of the population have a mobile you need to explain to them what they can do with it rather than why they need the phone itself.'

Orange uses initiatives such as last year's National Snapshot campaign, which encouraged customers to send phone pictures of the best part of their day, and content deals such as the current partnership with Lucasfilm to distribute Star Wars content on mobiles.

The firm has managed to come up with original twists on sponsorship, such as an initiative earlier this year to get Chelsea FC and England footballer Frank Lampard to record two weeks of his life on an Orange 3G phone. However, critics claim the brand still lacks direction.

'The basic problem for Orange is that it has never properly moved on from the genius proposition summed up in "The Future's Bright, The Future's Orange",' says The Fish Can Sing partner Dan Holliday, who has handled brand marketing assignments in the mobile phone arena.

'That slogan said: the future is promising, if a little intimidating; we will hold your hand and guide you through it,' he adds. 'By the time we had all got used to mobiles and took them for granted, that stopped resonating. Now anyone would be stuck to say what the Orange proposition is.'

When asked to explain the driving theme to Orange's PR, Jackson will only define its proposition as 'ensuring our customers are aware of the services available on their phone as opposed to selling them the phone itself'.

But with rivals chasing the same increased-average-revenue-per-user target, many watchers feel that Orange will need to return to the creativity for which it was once renowned to again take a leadership role.

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