Before you enter any company’s offices there is often the temptation to associate the interior with the industry itself.
Therefore, upon entering UCI’s headquarters in Manchester I was half expecting, nay hoping, to be greeted by a plethora of celebrity look-alikes. It’s the cinema image.
A terrifying Arnie look-alike would stand stony-faced in reception, complete with shades and black leather jacket, and coolly demand I sign the visitors’ book or “I won’t be back”. A young Marilyn Monroe would greet me at the top of the stairs and offer me a complementary box of popcorn, before a vodka-martini-swilling secret agent directed me to the marketing department.
Subsequently, I was a little disappointed.
Nonetheless, the seventh floor offices of Lee House in Manchester provide a striking view over the city. It’s the seat of power for UCI and the home of a marketing team that has grown dramatically over the last year.
This expansion has been due largely to the appointment last year of marketing manager Kate O’Brien.
Manchester raised and the daughter of Glaswegian and Mancunian parents, O’Brien has had a somewhat varied career to date, beginning her working life far from the silver screen of cinema in the more down-to-earth industry of banking.
Straight from college, O’Brien landed a job working at the Co-operative Bank, working with a £100m lending portfolio and becoming one of the few women in the country to be ACIB accredited (Association of Chartered Institute of Bankers).
But the world of corporate banking could only hold appeal for so long, and the young O’Brien soon found herself tempted by travelling. She explains: “I thought ‘I’ve got these qualifications, now I want to see the world.’ I saw an ad in the paper recruiting for air stewardesses and applied almost as a joke. When I got down to the last few applicants I remember being most worried about how I was going to explain to my Dad that I was giving up a promising career in banking to move to the Middle East”
A stint working with 52 different nationalities in the Middle East led to a job offer from holiday operator Airtours back in Britain.
Her new role there included being seconded to a “Business Change” project that involved defining the company’s brand values. “A company’s character is the same as a person’s character,” states O’Brien. “It defines your reputation.”
A promotion to a full brand-role followed, where O’Brien played a part in the branding of Airtours’ Family First division, which has since gone on to be one of the company’s most profitable arms.
Once again, however, change was on the cards for O’Brien.
“I’m always quite embarrassed when I tell this,” O’Brien confides. “But I was sitting on a beach in Acapulco, reading Marketing magazine, when I saw an ad for UCI. I thought ‘I’d love to have a go at that.’”
And so she did.
In May last year O’Brien joined UCI’s marketing department, under marketing director Janet Smith. It’s a role that provides her with a wealth of diversity. She says: “We are involved with practically every decision that’s made. One day we’ll be talking about pricing, the next about film classification. A few days ago I was on a site in Scunthorpe, with a hard hat on, deciding where to build a new cinema.”
The last 16 months have been eventful for UCI, with the launch of the Family Focus brand, complete with website, an extensive advertising and PR campaign targeting students (created by Manchester’s BDH\TBWA and Brazen PR), the screening of World Cup matches in several cinemas (including the distribution of limited edition Sushi-flavoured popcorn) and Brooklyn Beckham’s third birthday party in the Filmworks in Manchester (his parents are apparently regular visitors).
One of the biggest developments, however, has been the expansion of the marketing team as a whole.
“Something that’s been developed since I started has been the sense of how important a marketing function is,” explains O’Brien. “How important this department is to the company. Over 12 months the department has doubled in size and I think that’s a great testament to the company.”
O’Brien is also keen to point out the value UCI places on working with regional agencies. BDH\TBWA, Brazen, Mediaedge:CIA Manchester and new media agency Digerati are all Manchester-based agencies that the UCI marketing department views as extensions of its in-house team.
O’Brien explains: “We’ve moved away from London agencies. We feel very much that our agencies are an extension of our in-house team and so we need them to be close. We might need them to come in at the drop of a hat.
“Everybody works as a team. BDH and CIA might go away and have a meeting without us, but we have that level of trust because we see them as part of our marketing team here.”
As for future challenges, O’Brien names the internet as the next big step in UCI’s expansion plans. Other cinema companies have already embraced e-commerce with varying success, a fact not lost on UCI, who are determined to get their online e-commerce strategy right first time.
“I think there are a lot of challenges. One of the things we have to sort out is online and internet strategy. E-commerce is definitely something we should add to our toolbox. To an extent we already have done but our thought has been ‘Right, let’s get our house in order first before we go on.’ What we do have to make sure is that we do it well and keep up a consistent level of communication with our guests. We’re not going to do it and put it out to market if it’s not right, we realise how much damage that could do.”
In an increasingly popular industry, getting one cinema company to stand out from the competition is a tricky job. “Next Generation” cinemas with spacious seating and sound so real it makes you duck are drawing in the audiences like never before. Fortunately, UCI’s marketing team and agencies are more than up to the task, and it’s a challenge the company’s banker-turned air stewardess-turned marketer seems genuinely excited about. Banking, to jet-setting stewardess to executive position in tall office building. It’s like something out of a movie.