Products, positioning and the art of segmentation

A couple of months ago, I decided it was time to upgrade my mobile phone. Not just the phone, but the contract – an all-singing, all-dancing service, with web browsing, instant email and WiFi. Never go shopping with a copywriter. Years ago, I went to to see a play with a friend who was involved with the theatre. All through the show, he commented on the lighting, the staging, the acting and the direction. It was a long evening. For a copywriter, shopping is a bit of a busman’s holiday. What’s on offer? What are they really selling? How is it being positioned? Are the comparisons fair? Is it being oversold? What’s the imagery doing? How is it working with the copy? It’s a verbal assault course. But it’s fascinating to see how different companies talk about their products and services. Take Virgin Mobile. They’re clearly not aiming at the business market. Or anybody over the age of 30. There are kids in hoodies and cool dudes in wraparound sunglasses. The stress is on fashion, not function. And the language is funky: ‘These charges kick in’, ‘A fantastic deal, straight up’, ‘buy online and save a packet’. You could argue that they’re alienating a big chunk of the market. But they’re cleverer than that. By not trying to be all things to all people, they’re making themselves the irresistible choice for their target customers. My virtual window-shopping took me to all the UK mobile phone providers. And I got some fascinating insights, which apply to copywriting as much as marketing:
  • Choice isn’t always good – especially if there’s too much. The tariffs weren’t clearly explained or positioned. I could see where I was being led (an extra fiver for three times the minutes, a 18-month contract, web services) but couldn’t decide which path to take.
  • Consistency is important. Vodafone told me I could use my text allowance for data transfer when I was browsing the web. Then they told me I couldn’t. T-Mobile told me that they didn’t feature all their phones on the busiess section of the site – I had to look in the personal section. Even then, they said, the list was still incomplete.
  • Language matters. You’d expect a copywriter to say that, wouldn’t you? But it’s not just the written word. A T-Mobile new business advisor called me ‘mate’ twice during our conversation. His Vodafone counterpart said ‘Hang on a second, Kev. I’ll put you on hold, but don’t worry – there won’t be any cheesy hold music.’ (Instead, I got silence for two minutes and thought I’d been cut off.)
  • Cleverness doesn’t always work. Orange’s personal tariffs are called Dolphin, Raccoon, Canary and Panther. The names are supposed to reflect callers’ behaviour (heavy texters, mainly landline calls, calls to other Orange mobiles and so on). But their silliness would put me off taking out a contract. Who wants to be a raccoon?
None of these things are serious in themselves. But collectively, they create a bad impression. So what’s the solution? Well how about websites that are updated regularly, offers that are clearly positioned, FAQs that actually answer frequently asked questions (not just the ones they think customers are asking), ‘cheat sheets’ to give call-centre operators an at-a-glance guide, and even scripts to help them deal with customers? It’s a tall order, but it would transform the customer experience. And it might actually help me to make a choice (sad, isn’t it?).