British Telecom

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The British government created British Telecom as a public corporation on Oct. 1, 1981, following a study that recommended its predecessor, the Post Office, be split into separate postal and telecommunications units. At about the same time, Parliament passed the British Telecommunications Act, which encouraged the first steps in the U.K. toward introducing competition into the telecommunications industry.

Before 1981, the combined Post Office and British Telecom alone had decided what could be connected to Britain's telecommunications network, giving the organization a powerful veto on competitors. The Telecommunications Act established an independent procedure to set standards and approve equipment for connection to the network.

Faced with marketplace competition for the first time, British Telecom dropped its Busby spokescharacter, an amiable fat yellow bird its predecessor used in advertising in the 1970s that had become known as "the friendly face of BT."

Instead, British Telecom's ad agency, KMP/Compton, launched the "It's for You" TV campaign featuring characters such as Neptune and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. A series of animal-themed ads followed, and the campaign ran until 1985.

Customer-service strategy

In March 1989, British Telecom changed its strategy, launching "Customer Service Guarantee." Under that program, consumers could claim compensation if British Telecom failed to install a line on an agreed-upon date or repair a line promptly. (The company revised its guarantee several times over the following years.)

About the same time in 1989, BT's new agency, J. Walter Thompson Co., launched a campaign known as "Beattie," starring British comedienne Maureen Lipman, who came to be identified as the matriarch on the Golders Green omnibus, a vehicle used until 1992 by British Telecom to explain its services to consumers.

In March 1991, the British government began to allow consumers to acquire telecommunications services from competing providers using a variety of technologies. About a month later, British Telecom, facing increased competition for consumers, introduced the BT piper as its symbol. That September, it revised and reissued the Customer Service Guarantee as the "BT Commitment" and introduced special discounts for its business customers called "Customer Options."

In 1992, BT agency Simons Palmer created "Get Through to Someone," with TV spots that featured a series of real-life situations in which British Telecom aided consumers, such as a college girl calling home.

In 1993, BT and MCI Communications Corp. announced a joint global alliance through a new international joint venture, eventually named Concert. While the two companies intended to merge, BT later partnered instead with AT&T Corp. and opened another international joint venture that also used the Concert name. The 1993 alliance with MCI, however, did lead to BT's adoption of one of MCI's more prominent promotional campaigns and discount plans, "Friends & Family," in February 1994.

"It's good to talk"

Also in 1994, BT hired Abbot Mead Vickers/ BBDO as its lead agency for consumer marketing. Abbot Mead created a TV and radio campaign featuring actor Bob Hoskins and the tagline "It's good to talk."

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising campaign was named "It's good to talk" the most effective piece of British advertising between 1994 and 1996, saying that it revolutionized telephone usage in the U.K. by encouraging men to chat and tackling misconceptions about the cost of calls. Analysts estimated the campaign brought in as much as $500 million in new revenue for BT.

In 1995, Saatchi & Saatchi created a corporate campaign that featured physicist Stephen Hawking speaking via his voice synthesizer. At the end of the spot, he said, "Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking and its greatest failures by not talking."

In 1997, BT moved away from the use of celebrities in TV spots, instead adopting the tagline "Tell someone" with ordinary people using the phone to tell friends and family about their day, an embarrassing situation or a memorable occasion.

In April 1999, BT entered into an exclusive agreement with Universal Studios and director Steven Spielberg to license the E.T. character from the movie "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" for a campaign from Abbot Mead Vickers/BBDO in which E.T. used BT technology to "phone home"; the spots also introduced yet another slogan, "Stay in touch."

In April 2000, Sir Peter Bonfield, BT's chief executive, outlined another restructuring of the company, dividing it into various business units focused on individual technologies and markets.

But changes in the telecom industry continued to challenge Britain's dominant landline carrier. For example, cell phones threatened the future of BT's distinctive red public telephone booths. In 2004, Britain's telecom and media watchdog, Ofcom, announced a review of BT that could result in a breakup to provide an opportunity for more competition.

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