Why we still need the Carphone Warehouse


When Morrissey famously advocated that we go round hanging DJs he suggested that “the music that they constantly play says nothing to me about my life”. Kind of how I feel about the network brands for mobile phones. Image courtesy of Jason Bentley

I have just had to get myself a mobile phone contract.

I guess that dates me since mobiles/cellphones happened after I started work and so I have never had one of my own.

So as a matter of course I went to the Carphone Warehouse (The UK’s largest cellphone intermediary).

Needless to say it was a pretty grim experience.

It was the Camden Town store in London. They have just moved into it and it is a really rather lovely shop – minimal, reserved and smart.
But as we all know nice store environments are easy to deliver, good service less so.
Not only was it difficult to engage any of the staff in an interaction that might actually lead to a sale (they only condescended to talk to me on my third visit) but information was incorrect (necessitating a fourth visit) and in the end they gave up on helping me transfer my old mobile number to the new network and left me to my own devices.
So like I say, not a very pleasant experience and hopefully one I will never have to repeat.
But what the hell was I doing there in the first place?
Flanking the shop on Camden High Street are stand alone stores for all the major UK networks, all of whom spend vast amounts of money promoting their so called ‘brands’, and who in theory should have done away with the need for an intermediary like The Carphone Warehouse years ago.
Sure, there was a time when the networks had patchy coverage, the industry was immature and consumers like me lacked confidence so an intermediary was just what we all needed – an honest broker in a sea of consumer confusion and network flannel.
But what possible role might it play now, when we are savvy and the cowboys have hung up their spurs?
Surely my inclination should have been to cut out the middle-man and go straight to the brand I trusted most, had a special affinity for, imparted the most identity value to me or just had the best deals. The Carphone Warehouse should be as anachronistic a business as its name suggests.
And I think that the answer lies in the fact that the Carphone Warehouse is at least a brand unlike the network operators and despite their vast marketing budgets.
Orange may have been a brand ten years but it is now a pale and lifeless pastiche of its former self. I remember it being the only network brand I considered when I got a mobile for my partner in the mid-90s, how times have changed.
O2 is little more than an identity system – ubiquitous, pretty and flexible but meaningless.
Virgin (which I opted for) has the stench of your un-cool uncle that is trying to get with the kids.
You couldn’t wish for a more one dimensional brand than T-Mobile which doesn’t even have the advantage of a pretty logo.
And while Vodafone has a nice brand strategy up its sleeves (in the ‘power of now’ idea) it has done very little to create real consumer affection.
Oh yes and there is 3, wayward 3, I think I’d be more likely to entrust my children to the local parish priest for the weekend than give them any money.
Trapped in some branding time warp the best that these organisations can muster is the relatively Neanderthal achievement of each owning a colour
Sure I’m aware of the event sponsorship that each of the networks indulgence themselves in as an aid to corporate masterbation, and I find the ads for Orange in UK cinemas really very funny. But if you think that putting your name on the chests of a Formula One team is going to make a difference to my network choice you evidently think it is 1907 not 2007.
As a result I couldn’t have cared less which network I joined and more than that do not feel that I have any relationship with the one that I did (much to the annoyance of the carefully un-scripted call centre staff who all want to be my best friend).
And I’d suggest the churn levels in the industry indicate most consumers don’t care which operator they are with either. In 2005 Vodafone’s annual churn in the UK was nearly 30%.
These are not brands in the sense that you and I would understand them – they are businesses with pantone references.
That’s why we still need the Carphone Warehouse and other intermediaries like it. Because in categories where the principle players can’t be arsed to differentiate themselves an intermediary, particularly one that has mustered a bit of heritage, latent affection and employed the services of an anthropomorphic telephone can make a killing.
In the land of the blind the one eyed brand is king.

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19 Replies to “Why we still need the Carphone Warehouse”

  1. “Virgin (which I opted for) has the stench of your un-cool uncle that is trying to get with the kids”
    I’m confused – are you saying that brands reflect their users or not?

  2. Had the same experience about 3 months ago. And like you opted for Vigin (hey, Bransons a wanker, but I respect him).
    Problem is with these brands, apart from when you purchase a contract, the only interaction you really have with the brand is when something goes wrong (and paying your bill). Brands need to find positive ways to engage with customers beyond painting F1 cars.
    Cheers Richard!

  3. Since you are there take a look at their CRM programme. If you haven’t got your welcome package yet, take a closer look because it is custom fit to your phone, provider and plan.
    I had been thinking about this one while reading your CRM posts.It is not the b2c-chat CRM has promised, but one of the few examples of meaningful personal(ized) communication. They found a positive way to engage with customers (picking up Nat’s line here).

  4. “I find the ads for Orange in UK cinemas really very funny”

    Certainly the only ads that actually do something for orange. The rest of the campaign is just ‘pretty’ noise.

  5. First a hands up that I work for VCCP for do the O2 advertising but there is some cool stuff that they do for o2 customers – like priority ticketing for all concerts and events at the dome (now the o2), VIP fast track queues at the O2 and special O2 subscriber + mates bar, free booze and pies at football and rugby, backstage access at the O2 wireless festival etc. They are working hard to build those Am-Ex-esque “Benefits of Membership” which is I think exactly the right thing to be doing.

  6. These brands are merely facilitators that enable us to engage with our buddies. Unfortunately, they have lost track with how we engage, so they don’t really understand where they fit and how they can help us. And when you have no insight, what’s the best insight you can fall back on ….everyone loves a deal!
    They are alot like motorways; can’t be avoided – never a pleasant experience, difficult to update, disrupt everyone’s lives; exist in some parallel universe that doesn’t quite make sense/logic.
    You talk about Carphone Warehouse..Phones 4 U is a step above it. Their stores are even designed to look like a call centre – does anyone know why?

  7. Amelia – but what is the point of O2? Does anyone there know? If so it would be nice if they told us. O2 is a business idea but there is no idea behind the business.

  8. I think in the case of mobile/cell phones we can’t ignore that the actual product is anything but consumer centred. From the begining the service has been complicated and designed to squeeze out every ounce of profit -from 1 minute billing to complicated “surprise” roaming rates. I know this has changed over the years but it feels as if each advance has been reluctant and delayed as long as possible. So it’s hard to feel an emotional connection to a positioning when it’s painted like a pretty picture over something that lacks substance. I have a good feeling about my actual phone but share your indifference for the service. So in this case, it feels like the phone is the car brand (the VW, the BMW) while the service is the car dealership. How many people have a warm and fuzzy relationship with their car dealer? Maybe Carphone Warehouse isn’t such a bad name after all.

  9. Richard – help me understand what you mean by “what’s the point of O2” – do you mean O2 the brand or O2 the business?

  10. “They are alot like motorways; can’t be avoided – never a pleasant experience, difficult to update, disrupt everyone’s lives; exist in some parallel universe that doesn’t quite make sense/logic.”
    Um… motorways can’t be avoided and disrupt everyone’s lives…”?
    There’s only one things about that post that exists in some parallel universe that doesn’t quite make sense/logic…

  11. Amelia,
    Clearly the point of the O2 business is to make a profit it can return to whoever owns it. But my question is what role does the brand seek to play in my life because I’m confused and the net result is they didn’t get my business – they seem to have nothing to say to me.
    BTW O2 twelve month rolling churn stood at 27% at the beginning of last year – latest figures I can find. No better than Vodafone. Maybe you have more up to date figures suggesting that this has been significantly reduced.

  12. I’ve often ranted about this in the past. I think the problem is a lack of real competition, due to the high cost of entry. The mobile network business is a government-granted quadopoly (or is it a quintopoly now? I can’t remember), which seems to make them lazy. “So what if 30% of our customers leave? We’ll pick up another 30% who’ve left somewhere else.” As yet, people aren’t giving up their mobiles, so disgusted are they with the rubbish service. Instead they just ignore it, and look for the best deal for the next 12 months.
    Companies wishing to get into the market to try and offer something better, have just two options: to build their own physical network infrastructure (very expensive, and only an option if there is a licence available and they can afford the exorbitant cost of buying it), or to do a deal with an existing licence holder. But these MVNO’s seem pretty limited in the innovation they can offer, as they can’t reconfigure their host network’s protocols to, say, charge in a fundamentally different way.
    How different it might have been if there was just one mobile network infrastructure, with much more open access for competition? Better for our environment, and possibly our health. And we might see some real innovation from small, young, modern entrepreneurial companies who do ‘have a point’, and are hungry to prove it. Ho hum.
    (Mind you, this might all be toss. I’m not exactly bowled over by the innovation in the broadband sector, even though post-local loop unbundling that market looks a little like I’m describing.)

  13. “Oh yes and there is 3, wayward 3, I think I’d be more likely to entrust my children to the local parish priest for the weekend than give them any money.”
    God. What a wonderful way you have of making your points!!! Love it! And glad I’m not on the receiving end of your dissatisfaction. ;)

  14. Yes, yes and thrice yes.
    A while ago I challenged Orange’s beautiful “the longer you stay together the better things get” dancers ad at the Orange shop in Paddington, and was surprised to receive an immediate upgrade to a new phone, keeping my old number and not having to sign up to a new expensive tariff.
    A while later I tried to get the Orange Broadband deal… OMG what a disaster. A friend of mine works for Orange and I challenged him on this service, plus all the unrequested text messages I get offering me further upgrades and services I don’t want.
    He shrugged his shoulders, looked at his shoes and mumbled an apology. The beautiful brand ads are truly pretty noise – the swan gliding across the lake while underneath the grubby business of milking customers and outsourcing activities to agents who do not care about the brand or its relationship with customers goes on.

  15. I read some research recently (i think from phones4u) that said that the yoot didn’t care about operators brands, they only cared about handsets. for them, that was where the ‘value’ was.
    seemed to explain why o2 still lead the market despite (or because of) the DM style advertising. they are acting like a commodity in a commodity market.
    unless there’s some real innovation in the category, whether product or service, that’s actually relevant and/or useful to the consumer, i don’t think any amount of pretty advertising will change the the fact that mobile phone operators have become commodities.
    it also doesn’t help that all mobile telcos use the same format for their TV ads (cue the nu-folk soundtrack).

  16. I totally agree.
    When I went looking for a phone and network all I cared about was having a Nokia. Not because they look good or are cool but I get the interface and I am familiar with them.
    And yes the networks have become commodities.
    But that is an excuse for lazy marketing.
    Marketing has a job to de-commodifiy brands and categories – if it is not doing this what is it doing?

  17. I think it’s difficult to call o2’s marketing lazy – it’s actually worked very hard for them. They are number 1 in a very competitive market by a decent margin. In fact, in answer to your question, I’d say achieving that was the job of marketing.
    I do agree that decommodifying a low involvement product can have clear benefits – specifically the ability to command a higher margin. However, I’m pretty sure you’d also agree that making a ‘beautiful film’ about some random emotional belief (with a product tacked on the end) isn’t enough to do that anymore, not least because that’s what every other fucker is doing too.
    I think this is because without real innovation in products or services the advertising just seems very hollow. I might be convinced enough by a big emotional ad telling me that Orange thinks people are good together etc etc to get a contract – but that feeling won’t last more than 40 minutes on hold to a CSR that doesnt speak English and doesn’t know what product i’m calling about. In fact, I’m more and more convinced that the brand manager in a company isn’t the marketing director but the COO.

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