From ‘walking back slowly’ to ‘winning in the new world’: Jason Paris and Jo Allison on the Spark strategy

27 years ago, Telecom was given its name. Today it’s officially giving itself a new one. As one of the country’s biggest ever rebrands rolls off the production line, we talk internal enthusiasm, teaser campaigns, customer sentiment, competitive responses and man-hole covers with Spark’s general manager of home, mobile and business Jason Paris and Spark Digital’s general manager services and solutions Jo Allison. 

Back in February, the Telecom powers that be announced that the company would change its name to Spark at a cost of around $20 million and try to bring to an end a strategy that general manager of home, mobile and business Jason Paris called ‘walking back slowly’. Not surprisingly, he says it looked at a number of other big rebrands from around the world to see what it needed to focus on. And there were two main out-takes: “it starts with the internal team and there needs to be substance behind it”. 

“The name change is the least of your concerns. It’s the experiences your teams provide. We’ve spent a lot of time talking to the team on how they’re going to bring it alive and making sure they understand and are inspired by it.” 

Paris says it conducted an internal roadshow of the Spark programme, which was aimed at giving those who weren’t part of it an understanding of what it was taking to market and what it meant for its customers, and that came to an end this week. 

“And the vibe and energy around that has been phenomenal. Everyone’s bloody excited.”

And bloody busy. 

“The team did say to me yesterday, ‘when do we get a day off?’ And I said ‘you get midnight to 6am, what do you mean?'”

  • Check out an in-depth article on the thinking behind the decision to rebrand to Spark here

There’s obviously plenty of excitement inside the business about this change, but does the public share that excitement? Paris says its research says yes. 

“Existing customers are just saying we’re with you because we like you and we like what you’re saying, so let’s make sure there’s something behind it. And we’re confident there is. And the key thing is that customers we don’t have are saying ‘you’ve been getting us to the line to reconsider with what you’ve been doing’ and the rebrand just creates some more momentum to get them across.” 

Allison says there’s been no need to research its nearly 4,000 customers. It’s just been talking to them. 

“And most of them are saying ‘we like what we’re hearing’. Some of them have had some experience already in our thought leadership programmes where we’ve been able to bring a whole bunch of quite different thinking about what’s going on in the digital world and what it’s going to mean for them in the future. So from today it’s how we really reach out much wider.” 

While the major focus has been on Telecom’s consumer business, Gen I is a significant part of Spark’s business. So has it been overlooked in the melee?

“This isn’t a competition between how many times people say Gen-I vs. how many times they say Telecom. In fact, my personal view is that this whole process has really cemented strong relationships between Jason’s team and mine. The example I always keep talking about is that we might talk to the CEO of Fonterra, or the CIO at ASB and they have a relationship with us from a business perspective. So they can see us as Spark/Gen I at work. But they all go home at night to their family, they all have home broadband and they might be talking about whether they’re going to get Lightbox.” 

While Spark Digital is a B2B play, it’s always people inside businesses that make decisions (Volvo Trucks discovered that focusing on people was a good B2B strategy with Epic Splits) And while Spark and Spark Digital are very different businesses, with very different product sets and different ways of managing customers (with Spark Digital, customers are signing three year deals or up to 20 year deals so their relationship is less transient, whereas 50 percent of its mobile base is not on contract), they feel that bringing the brands closer together will be beneficial for both. 

So far Allison says there’s been plenty of support for the decision from the businesses it deals with. 

“A lot of customers, particularly chief executives, have said to us that when they look at transformation, when they look at their own brands, when they look at what they’re doing and then they look at what Telecom is doing they say ‘go you. We might be your customer, but we’re in business too.’ They understand what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do, and their feedback has been incredibly positive.” 

Paris says he hasn’t heard too many people say that rebranding Telecom is a bad idea, except for “the very vocal minority” and “anonymous”. But while he glosses over the name change, it’s the most obvious and tangible example of the change for consumers. So it’s sparing no expense letting New Zealand know it’s become Spark and is going on full media attack today to launch the brand with a host of newspaper ads, site takeovers, a new website and a 60 second ad (that process is being run in corporate by Andrew Pirie and Andrew Stone with Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide Design and Emotive).

In a release, it says: “The Spark New Zealand August 8 campaign marks a moment in time for the business, which is why it will run for one day only. What better way to celebrate becoming Spark than to show our people telling the story themselves, talking about the role they have played in improving services and products for customers and why they are excited about what the change will mean for New Zealand. Underpinning the ad is the substance behind the change to Spark, which is about the business being inspired by customers to keep building on the huge changes and bold moves of the past 18 months. The campaign builds on strong awareness of the change amongst New Zealanders. Recent UMR research showed two thirds of New Zealanders knew that Telecom was changing its name and around a third knew that the new name was Spark. The creative treatment for the campaign involves light sticks held at different angles by Spark staff members, which together form the Spark logo.” 

Spark gets some “clear air” today, says Paris, and the home, mobile and business side of the business will launch its campaign tomorrow. Spark has been running a teaser campaign via TV, outdoor and online that features shots of mostly young Kiwis standing still. A commentor on a previous story about the teasers said: “Teaser campaigns are like wetting yourself in a dark suit. You get a nice warm feeling (briefly) but no-one else notices.” But Paris says it just wanted to create a little more hype.  

“I liked the BNZ campaign so we thought we’d just create a bit of interest there in what’s coming. We will be going to market using all media channels as you’d expect with our new brand position. But it’s all about the props and the experiences. So we’ve got four new programmes of work that we’re going to be rolling out over the next four weeks; things that are new under Spark that didn’t exist under the Telecom brand. So there’s a lot of substance to this.” 

Spark Digital will also be launching a new product next Thursday, but it’s promotional strategy is obviously a lot different. 

“For us it’s about communicating with every single one of our customers. It’s pretty easy for us to do that when it’s a one to one relationship. Tim Miles our chief executive will get out there and talk to them face to face about what it’s going to mean for them. Most importantly, nothing actually changes for them on Friday. It’s not like a whole bunch of systems will be different, it’s the same thing that they’ve been used to. We just hope it will be better for them.” 

While this is undoubtedly a watershed day for Spark, Paris says the rebrand doesn’t stop today. And success all goes back to its customer insights.

“Jo’s got four and we’ve got five. So for us, everything will be based on showing existing customers that we value then, bringing the new cool stuff, being the easiest to deal with, knowing you like no other and therefore being a brand that people love and are proud to be with. Every single thing we do, from the launch and ongoing, will involve those five things, and the biggest part of it for me is valuing our existing customer base and turning them in to advocates so they become an acquisition channel in their own right.” 

Telecom has been pretty open about its strategy. And while Allison hasn’t noticed any responses from competitors in the IT space, Paris says it’s been interesting seeing Vodafone launch its Fabulous Fridays campaign a couple of weeks ago thanking their existing customers.

“You can’t help but wonder if that’s off the back of us publicly talking about wanting to reward our existing customers.” 

He has also noticed things have got even more competitive on a pricing level.

“Our competitors are discounting even more heavily than they have in the past, which is kind of annoying, because pulling the price lever rather than trying to add value is a pretty lazy way of doing business.” 

Telecom’s momentum may be fuelling some of that, but so too could Telecom-owned Skinny, which is openly touting itself as a cheap version of Telecom. 

Logistically, changing a brand as big as Telecom is a huge challenge. But another thing it has learned from other big rebrands is that it’s important to “prioritise the customer facing stuff first”. 

With a rebrand of this size and so many moving parts, the law of unintended consequences means there will probably be a few things that don’t work and maybe a few Telecom logos that remain. But a lot of thought has gone into making sure they are few and far between. 

“There will be a bunch of stuff that customers won’t see behind the scenes that will happen more slowly. An idea I heard today that I think some of the social team are doing is to ask ‘what haven’t we changed out that we should have?‘. Instead of it being criticised, we turn it into a bit of a game and say ‘catch us out’.” 

That seems to be in keeping with the more open and responsive approach it has taken in recent months, with members of executive team commenting on stories and giving plenty of interviews to explain themselves—and a nice campaign that took a leaf out of Z’s book called Spark Should.  

So what about those manhole covers?

“They’ll never change. We’ve thought about it and dismissed it,” says Paris. “Are they critical? I’m not sure. If the customer speaks and says ‘Actually, I’m a Vodafone customer and I won’t join up unless you change the manholes’, we might consider it. But it’s more about Chorus than us these days. Maybe we could change it and get them to pay for it?” 

Might we suggest a more modern, 3D printed manhole cover featuring the Spark logo? Just ask Jake Evill to make one. 

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