Will TV show rub off on Amstrad?

The Apprentice has been a PR success for its star, Sir Alan Sugar. Alex Black asks whether his company Amstrad can share any of the programme’s benefits

Amid the personality-led hullabaloo surrounding series two of The Apprentice – the BBC reality TV show that climaxed this Wednesday – the fortunes of Sir Alan Sugar's own company Amstrad have taken something of a backseat.

The bulk of the coverage during the hit series has, inevitably, focused on Sugar's own personality (such as his devastating deployment of the catchphrase 'you're fired!') and, in the lead-up to this week, the personal histories of the contestants battling to win the £100,000 one-year job.

No doubt we will hear more from the winner and losers, but what of
Amstrad itself? Will The Apprentice help to shift its own products? Can the show help to change perceptions of a company – which launched in 1967 to make electronics available to the masses – and which has suffered a fair share of bad press?

It is a question worth asking, because the company does not have a particularly strong reputation among the crucial tech sector media.

Business as usual?
Jason Jenkins, deputy editor of gadget magazine T3, describes Amstrad's email phone products as 'pretty appalling', adding: 'The company lost its way some years ago as far as we're concerned. I'm not sure what it's going to do to impress customers.'

What Satellite and Digital TV editor Alex Lane is slightly more forgiving. 'The past couple of products we tested were of reasonable quality, but the brand still suffers from the reliability issues it had in the early days. I think of it as a cheap [set-top] box shifter.'

Amstrad's own PR, and Sugar's personal publicity, is handled by Frank PR, which is also promoting the show's winner – now an Amstrad employee. (Promotion of the show itself has been handled by Taylor Herring, on behalf of Talkback Productions, which also deals with the losing contestants).

Frank MD Andrew Bloch insists that reliability is not a problem for the company: 'Amstrad would not be Sky's biggest supplier if it was. There are nearly one million of these products in UK living rooms.'

Sugar has always been adamant that appearing on the show had nothing to do with promoting Amstrad. Just after he signed up to the first series (which aired last year), Sugar told PRWeek the show 'was of interest to me simply because it falls in line with that enterprise drive that I have had with the Government for many years – and my interest in stimulating entrepreneurial spirit' (PRWeek, 6 November 2004).

Is this just spin? Well, apart from the Amstrad phone in the mocked-
up TV boardroom, there has been little obvious promotion of the company. Taylor Herring MD James Herring points out that his client was restricted by Ofcom rules: 'It's a BBC programme, so it can only refer to Amstrad occasionally and in an appropriate context.'

But what about beyond the show? Bloch admits the agency does all it can to ensure coverage of The Apprentice reflects positively on Amstrad: 'Tim Campbell, winner of the first series, became health and beauty director at the company. We used his winner's profile as media leverage to launch the Integra Facecare System. As the winner, Campbell attracted a broader range of media to the launch of this product than might have otherwise attended.'

Lindsay Spencer, director at technology agency Spreckley Partners, points out that much of Amstrad's business comes from set-top boxes for satellite TV – a commoditised market in which brand is arguably less important. 'People go to Sky to get their box, not Amstrad,' she explains. 'The crucial factor is not brand recognition but wholesale price, and Sugar's TV appearance cannot influence that.'

In the public eye
Bloch argues that although the show provides a good hook when approaching media for Amstrad's consumer launches, its real value is its influence  on public perception of the firm.

'Consumers might not necessarily know what products it makes, but
they certainly know that Amstrad is a successful company,' he says.
Tom Burgess, founder of technology agency Bond PR, once worked for Nick Hewer, Sugar's right-hand man on The Apprentice. 'Nick advised Alan for many years through his agency Michael Joyce Consultants. I joined the agency to work on the Amstrad account about 12 years ago,' he recalls.

Burgess believes the public is still unsure about what Amstrad actually does – but insists this is not a problem: 'The business does well, so maybe it's where Alan wants it to be,' he says. 'If he wanted to be the next Sony, I'm sure he'd do things differently. But as long as Amstrad is making money I don't think Alan will be too worried about its reputation.'

Chocolate PR account director Gavin Spicer says it would be a difficult task to piggyback Sugar's TV role for Amstrad's consumer comms: 'For starters, Alan is pretty much the flipside to Sir Richard Branson in terms of being media friendly.

'Secondly, the show is all about aggressive salespeople. You get the
impression that if someone went to Alan with a product that could be knocked out at Comet for £50 a pop, he'd love it. That's not going to dispel Amstrad's "pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap reputation", is it?'
Although Amstrad's annual results, announced in February (£12.5m profit on sales of £49.6m), were slightly down on last year, BSkyB's marketing activity around Sky+ means demand for Amstrad boxes is healthy.

And with the last stock of its now-outmoded E-m@iler Telephone set to be shifted by the end of the year, Sugar's company looks like it will continue to fulfil its raison d'être: to make lots of money.

Amstrad Timeline

* 1967 Alan Michael Sugar Trading founded. Renamed Amstrad in 1968
* 1980 Amstrad lists on the London Stock Exchange
* 1984 Home computer 'CPC 464' has a revolutionary built-in tape player
* 1986 Amstrad launches first mass-market IBM-compatible PC
* 2000 The E-m@iler phone rolls out. In the same year, Sugar is knighted
* 2004 The E3 videophone debuts
* 2005 Sugar appears in first series of the BBC's The Apprentice. Amstrad launches Sky+ box that can pause live TV and record programmes to a harddrive.
* 2006 Second series follows successful first outing

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