There is an insightful piece about O2 in Robert Heath's wonderful book Seducing the Subconscious. Robert writes about how the brand launched in the UK in 2001 with...
"... an unassuming advertising campaign that occasionally showed doves taking off and people dancing, but mostly featured blue water with bubbles bubbling through it and some lilting music in the background with a rather cryptic message at the end; O2. See what you can do".
Apart from the somewhat vague tagline, Robert notes that there was not much in the way of price claims or deals or product innovation. And water and bubbles were not obvious cues for a mobile phone brand. I might add that we rarely showed phones in our broadcast advertising too, much to the annoyance and bewilderment of our colleagues in retail.
Yet within four years, O2 was the market leader in the UK with 17 million customers - and as Robert explained, had become so, "without undercutting other brands on price, without having any technical advantage, and without using any exceptional promotional activity".
I worked on the O2 brand for about nine years. I don't believe O2 was genuinely 'differentiated'. Not that we didn't try to differentiate ourselves. We did. And perhaps at times throughout this period, we did pull away from the competition. But (it pains me to admit) I know from hundreds of focus groups that people generally didn't believe O2 was particularly different to, say, Vodafone. I'd say that people saw them as pretty good substitutes for each other - an argument possibly for how similar they were (not different).
Certainly, some people seemed to like O2. They perhaps struggled to articulate why. We had our own theories ourselves on why they did. But it was probably fair to say that for a very large number of people, the mobile phone operators were not hugely differentiated from each other.
So why was O2 successful?
One theory is that brands should not overly worry about differentiation, but work real hard to be distinctive. The thinking is that it may be too difficult to persuade people that your brand is significantly different. Often because, in truth, many brands are not hugely different to their competitors. Instead the task we should put our energy into is staying top of mind - creating and refreshing memory structures.
One way to do this is to be noticed and remembered. And O2 was highly distinctive. People may not have had strong views about O2. But they knew an O2 ad almost immediately. We were relentless in our commitment to consistently featuring our brand cues - the blue gradient and bubbles. People instantly recognised the image above even without the logo - which I purposely left out here to make the case:) This, I believe, was the misunderstood genius behind O2's marketing success. Fair play to Peter Holmes and his team for their work here.
Of course this had its own challenges. The more consistent we were, the more our ads seemed the same - which made it difficult at times for our individual messaging to cut through. This challenge influenced our thinking when we were creating the 48 brand. I'll come back to this in another post.
Robert's book tackles the differentiation question too. His own theory on O2's success is that it was able to effortlessly slip under people's radars and influence us, without us putting up our guard to the fact that we were being sold something (although not in a Vance Packard way). Perhaps this correlates with stuff we heard back from customers. They seemed to like us, but just not sure why.
Great advertising, Robert believes, 'seduces' our subconscious. His book is well worth a read.