BT's CMO says it wants to harness emotion of 'Good to Talk' era in brand overhaul

BT’s Bob Hoskins-fronted ‘It’s Good to Talk’ campaign first hit screens in 1995. Now, more than two decades on, the brand is unifying its business divisions under a similar proposition that’s been realigned for the digital age to champion the role the brand plays in bringing people closer together.

BT is unifying its consumer-facing and B2B brands, including its sport and entertainment offerings, under a singular strapline ‘Be There’, which underlines the role communication plays in people’s lives.

After years of marketing the divisions separately BT has taken the choice to merge its platforms because it believes it’s been “underleveraging” how integral its services are in terms of connecting individuals and businesses in the UK.

“If we want to drive better emotional engagement and brand trust then we need to do that in a more co-ordinated way,” the telecom giant's chief brand and marketing officer, Zaid Al-Qassab, told The Drum.

Supporting the ‘Be There’ strapline are several films promoting BT's broadband, sports and B2B offerings. All the spots are emotive, particularly ‘Budgie’ which promotes the brand’s BT Infinity service, and depicts a little girl chatting to her grandpa on her tablet as her pet budgie (a gift from him) follows her around the house.

AMV BBDO handled the brand creative for BT's consumer products, while Now was responsible for the B2B side, which focuses on real-life unscripted moments between two individuals – a campaign that launched last month.

Returning to heritage

After years of separate brand strategies and years of flip flopping between sensitive family-oriented spots – such as the 00s story of ‘Adam and Jane’ starring My Family actor Kris Marshall – and glamorous blockbuster ads featuring the likes of Ryan Reynolds, it seems the brand has finally settled on a purpose-based approach that plays on nostalgia.

“People still talk about ‘Good to Talk’ which was very purposeful and focused on the role communication plays in people’s lives. In a way this is going back to our heritage, but obviously in a much more modern way in a digital world," says Al-Qassab, drawing paralells between the emotional themes of both campaigns.

His sentiment that BT has perhaps been downplaying the part it plays in consumers' and business owners' day-to-day lives is one echoed by O2's chief executive, who said last week that telecoms sector "isn't as loved" as it should be.

For BT itself, consumer perceptions lag behind those of its rivals, especially when it comes to broadband, with YouGov's Brand Index placing BT at number 24 out of a list of 27 providers. Its score of -0.9 is only slightly higher than that of TalkTalk - which is sitting at -10.7 after recovering from a mammoth hacking scandal.

BT has faced several damaging headlines in recent months, including an accounting scandal around its Italian arm, which cost the business more than £200m and decreased its year-on-year profits by 40%, as well the loss of 4,000 jobs as part of a restructure.

While Al-Qassab didn't comment on those matters, when asked about the challenges of marketing the brand amid these headlines, he says: "I think the important headline is the amount we are investing in customer experience," pointing to the fact that 86% of the brand's call centres are now in the UK. "We believe that if you do that then in the end you'll have more success as a brand."

Distinct brands

While BT is banking on a return to emotion to help show consumers it understands them, Al-Qassab acknowledges that the approach isn't without its obstacles. "One of the biggest challenges for us around emotion is often when it comes to promoting content – like sport or entertainment, things people are passionate about – we have to explain the role we play in bringing that into their lives," he says.

As such, the BT Sport push sits on the same platform but approaches things in a different way. Set to a thumping soundtrack, the spot is fronted by England and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Dele Alli who goes up against the likes of Saracens Maro Itoje, NBA Superstar Dramond Green and UFC’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk to showcase the variety of sports BT has the rights to.

Last year, mobile network EE unveiled an ad starring longtime ambassador Kevin Bacon to celebrate its content tie-up with BT Sport, marking the first time the brands have appeared in a campaign together since BT acquired the operator earlier in 2016 for £12.5bn.

There's no sign of EE in the latest spot and Al-Qassab says it will stay this way, while its other consumer brand Plusnet will also remain distinct. "We've decided that we want to run a portfolio of brands so that allows us to position them differently and reach more customers," he explains. "We will keep them separate, as they appeal to different markets."

The overall 'Be There' campaign will be supported by investment in OOH, digital, social and beyond, and Al-Qassab is firm that it's not all about TV for the brand and that it will turn to fresh platforms like Snapchat and Instagram where appropriate.

"I don't think TV is dead – that is often talked about and it's total nonsense. If you want to get broad reach of certain audiences then TV is the best way to do it. However, we believe in going where our customers go and that means that in the modern world, brands need a patchwork of different media choices that enable them to bring their message to life.

"We have operated that way for several years," he says, adding that BT is one of the biggest spenders in OOH. "Across our business I don't think there's anything we don't use."

Whether the brand's new proposition will help it turn around consumer perceptions remains to be seen, but further activations will be rolled out throughout the year as it looks to hark back to the days of 'It's Good to Talk' to instill a renewed sense of trust in consumers.

Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. She primarily writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

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