Richard Branson is Darth Sidious

Think about it. Cable company ntl were desperate to rebrand. Thanks to the diligent work of a web community calling themselves “nthell” their lousy performance and customer service was reported far and wide. It got to the point where every journalist called ntl by the name “nthell” in every story they wrote. The pun was infectious. So what does ntl do? It tries to buy up everyone and everything, including Richard Branson and right to use the name “Virgin”. So now ntl is Virgin Media. And if you try to hit the URL you arrive at the homepage.

What kind of twisted mind could have plotted such an ingenious way to make money from thin air, from absolutely nothing? What kind of marketing genius could have conspired to extract money from a post-bankruptcy ntl in exchange for something as intangible as a new name? Forget the Virgin virtual network, which is worth nothing. The clue is in the name, after all. Virtual is the opposite to real. So who can make money from nothing? Richard Branson, that is who. Forget the beardy-weirdy’s hippy shagging, balloon-riding, long hair antics. That is all a brilliant marketing cover. Branson is Dr.Evil with a makeover. Branson probably invented the pun “hthell”. Certainly only he had the media connections to force every journalist and pundit to use the nickname. Only he has the common touch to encourage so many people to publicise their stories to rubbish ntl. Now, in true Emporer Palpatine/Darth Sidious style he has suppressed those dissenting voices, following the rebranding to Virgin. And he plans to take over the world. Probably he is laughing right now….. mwohahahahahahaharrrggghhhh…..

There was a serious point somewhere…. what was it…. oh yes, consumer power in the internet age. Things like nthell probably did contribute to the decision to spend large amounts of money on re-branding. But re-branding does not solve problems if customers remain sceptical. Consider T-Mobile UK’s continuing defensive attitude to their network coverage, long after they rebranded from One2One, which has lead them to spend money on advertising their StreetCheck coverage accessory. Oddly, though, T-Mobile are the one UK network which has not given a coverage map for 3G services to the GSM Association, see here. Virgin mobile, despite using the network of T-Mobile UK, make little mention of network coverage, and no mention at all of T-Mobile. They do offer the same postcode-based coverage checker as T-Mobile, but in contrast their main message is that they are “not bragging” about better than 99% coverage. Clever psychological marketing trick that, to make it sound like 99% is good, when it compares poorly with the competition. So perhaps the secret of Virgin’s success is that they attract customers with relatively little interest in how the service works, or even how well it works. That may make for an interesting cultural challenge when marketing to savvy television and broadband customers, who typically have a better understanding of the product and will be keener to complain if expectations are not met.

The interesting thing about consumer power is that it still comes down to knowledge. Thanks to the internet, it is much easier to know about things like how technology works or the customer experience others enjoy – or endure – from rival suppliers. But then the perceptions of “typical” customers will also depend on how much access they have to information. So how well informed they are depends in part on whether fellow customers are the kinds of people who use the internet and are willing to spend time dissing poor service. What we do know for certain is that if you get the service wrong, and supply customers with the skills and motivation to use the internet to strike back at your business reputation, you end up with nthell and the like. And the only solution then is to spend a lot of money on rebranding – and maybe also on buying up the websites that criticise the product.

Of course, if you type “virgin sucks” into a search engine you find some people who would be more likely to buy their communications products from nthell…. And oddly enough their opinions rate higher than the XXX material you might expect to find with that search string.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.