Is EE's rebrand doomed to fail? Why its Kevin Bacon ads leave me feeling misled
For the first in a regular column, Lewis Blackwell emerges from the cinema confused by a brand makeover. Instead of embracing the potential of social entertainment, he says EE clings on to the media manners of a geriatric dictator.
Lewis Blackwell is not impressed by EE's expensive Kevin Bacon ads
The woman beside me, a stranger, is not amused. “I just don't think this is very funny. And I don't like him anyway. What did he ever do that was any good? I don't know what he is on about.”
She's talking too loudly to the man on the other side of her who is, I presume, her companion. We are all in a packed cinema awaiting the main feature and getting in the mood – or not – with Kevin Bacon.
The object of derision is a commercial. You may well have seen these spots with KB – they're hard to avoid. This is the one where he is walking through a quaint country town juggling the universe, impersonating Frank Carson, and being out-performed by a dog called Rover.
Kevin is telling us about the wonders of Everything Everywhere. Or EE, as the brand may want us to call it.
Another film in the series has Kevin avoid the problem of competitive canines by acting all the parts himself, playing aged versions of characters he once starred as in Footloose, Apollo 13 and other films that are hazy in the memory. It has a message about movie-going but it is unmemorable. After several viewings.
Anyway, let's park our opinion on Kevin, his acting, and his famed six degrees of separation from everybody on the planet (the big 'communication' idea that is bumbling around in the campaign, bumping into parts of our consciousness without really explaining what it is doing there).
Let's consider instead how these mysterious little movie-ettes work as communication tools. They're ads, in the 'gold spot' position ahead of the main entertainment. They're big brand announcements – the wonders of Everything Everywhere/EE, proclaimed in grandiose vague terms, with not a backward glance at the T-Mobile and Orange brands that disappeared to make it.
There is more than a sense that the films are meant to be the cream on the campaign, that somehow we are supposed to also know about EE from supporting ad sustenance that has reached us through various drip feeds. But that's where it begins to fall apart. Or collapse further.
I know from reading crucial sources, such as The Drum, that a bunch of social and other connecting stuff sits in this campaign. I've seen the odd print ad, and professional interest tells me that there was a fancy launch party projection at Battersea Power Station and that Nicole Scherzinger wore a dress. As a Vodafone customer perhaps the EE heat passes me by. And yet my wife, who has/had a T-Mobile service, is largely mystified too. She wonders if any of these changes might improve reception. Kevin's sponsors have yet to find a way into the ground floor of our house.
Now three months since launch, I am sure the marketing team has statistics to impress. That is their job. But I can be a little more speculative here. I can also see on the web a range of critical comments about the superficiality of this brand makeover, and the underlying service issues.
It strikes me that in the highly disrupted world of media, the EE campaign is a wonderful case study in the making. It is trying to do a whole lot of things, and has big resources to do it with. But 'doomed to fail' is a phrase that slips out through the fingers onto the keyboard.
Doomed to fail, because whatever the spectacular stats on customer recall, loyalty, tweeting, blah-de-blah, you can't ignore certain by-products of the exercise.
Fiirstly, there are two large groups of vaguely loyal customers who are being messed with big time. Hard to believe, but yes T-Mobile and Orange had their adherents... the QPR supporters of the mobile world, in that they would like to be with a successful team but they feel kind of contracted to the one they chose way back. Indeed, I live with one. They have now been summarily herded together and given re-education on the benefits of EE. But nothing tangible. They will continue to wonder what is in it for them and no amounts of expensive advertising resolves that. While they grumbled at their old service, they grumble a lot more at being told it is a shiny new service and yet little has really changed.
Furthermore, most of us share memory and even affection for the executed brands. Unfortunately, KB's backers can't ee, or entirely erase, the brain cells filled with a decade of memorable Orange ads. We loved to hate Mr Dresden and his Orange Film Board, and then we chuckled at Orange film trailer spoofs. Don't they deserve better than to be dumped in an unmarked grave?
In the brutal suppression and eradication of familiar brands and campaigns, advertisers run a great risk. They insult our memories. They treat us as if they can simply upgrade our brain with a new pack of data and we will be none the wiser.
But it doesn't quite work like that. For one thing, the new work would have to be incredibly entertaining to immediately engage us with the rebrand and its story. This rarely happens and this campaign is pretty typical.
For another thing, totalitarian brand control with aggressive push media is so old-school. In a world where social media grows apace, where the consumer does so much to build brands, how come a campaign for state-of-the-art mobile technology seems to depend on talking fast at us? I can't help but think of aged Arab Spring dictators controlling state TV while the insurgents moved and massed and seized control through tweets and texts and talking with each other.
Now EE may have a lot of social stuff out there but it doesn't seem to be visible in my real or virtual neighbourhood. I bet there are some really cool ideas somewhere and they could have benefited from more of the budget spent behind the commercials.
Social entertainment, or participative media, is at the core of how this brand should communicate. Increasingly, it is at the core of what all brands are about. This re-brand campaign half-knows that but doesn't seem to follow through.
There is something about the expense of the EE commercials that makes me feel misled, deceived by advertisers trying to tell me something that is probably not quite going to deliver. They are all too clearly expensive ads and take themselves fairly seriously, with laboured punning comedy. In contrast, the previous Orange films sent up advertising even as they shamelessly and ironically promoted themselves. We admired the cheek.
Consumers, whether as mobile users or cinemagoers or whatever, owe advertisers nothing. With push media, they allow the advertiser in because of the entertainment value or usefulness of the message. Increasingly, all media moves away from straight push though, and the audience expects to be allowed involvement in shaping the entertainment and the message.
If EE means that to happen, they have a way to go and one might say you wouldn't want to start from where they now find themselves, half into a campaign with some people still wondering if they can get two-for-one on an Orange Wednesday.
Perhaps they should have asked their customers to lead the change.