Tribute: How Bell just got better

The 140-year-old company has found longevity in a marketing vision that sees its multi-faceted brand as one.

2015-01-08 (9)

By Will Novosedlik

This story appears in the January/February issue of strategy.

There are only a handful of brands that enjoy the historical legacy that Bell Canada does. There are also very few that have enjoyed its near-monopoly status for so long.

Up until 1983, Bell was pretty much the only big telecom in town. To be sure, there were regional carriers and hundreds of tiny local telecoms, some with as few as 50 customers. But after a wave of consolidation during the ‘60s, Bell had bought many of them up. The regulatory pendulum swung in the opposite direction in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as AT&T divested itself of Bell Canada ownership and the brand was repatriated in 1975.

The ‘80s saw the leap to mobile. The first mobile phone customer in Canada, a travelling funeral director from Peterborough, Ontario, purchased a $2,700.00 mobile phone and took out a service subscription with Bell Canada in July 1985. The next year saw the emergence of what would become Bell’s biggest competitor in mobility, Rogers Communications. Western competition emerged in the form of Telus, which after its 1999 merger with BCTel became the second largest telecom in Canada.

The ‘90s and early 2000s were a time of diversification. With the launch of Sympatico in 1995 and prepaid brand Solo Mobile in 2000, followed by the creation of Bell Globemedia, the Bell enterprise had grown multiple arms and legs.

With interests in telephony, mobility, media (print, digital, TV), sports and home security, Bell had become a multifaceted communications provider to both consumers and businesses. It had become a brand of many brands. But that was about to change.

From Many to One

The year 2008 marked the ascension of George Cope to the role of CEO of Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE). Cope had come up through the ranks via mobility, with executive roles at ClearNet and later Telus, before taking the helm at BCE. At Bell, he was joined by three colleagues with deep branding and marketing chops in the telecom space: Wade Oosterman, Rick Seifeddine and Devorah Lithwick. All three had come from Telus.

This team brought three important things to the brand table: a long-term view, a commitment to consistency and a strong belief in the power of design.

1286_BEM_VAN_PROV_10.306x165_2560B_200dpi_CMYKFor the five years leading up to 2008, Bell campaigns had relied on the animated beavers “Frank and Gordon” created by Cossette, who, while cute and cuddly, did not fully represent what the brand had become. “The beavers were too narrowly focused. They were funny, a little bit goofy, some people really liked them,” says SVP brand Devorah Lithwick. “But as we looked forward at the changing landscape of our products, services and customers, we realized that we really wanted a more universally appealing brand, one that would not just be externally motivating to consumers and business, but internally to employees as well.”

It was time for a reset.

That assignment fell to Zulu Alpha Kilo. In 2007, Zak Mroueh, after nine years as creative director at Taxi, set out to start an agency of his own. Mroueh was well-known to Oosterman, Seifeddine and Lithwick because of Taxi’s long relationship with Telus. Tasked with the Bell rebrand in 2008, Lithwick contacted the creative director and asked if he’d take it on. That led to a meeting with the three new custodians of the Bell brand.

Mroueh had still not officially announced the launch of Zulu, but he had the trust of the marketing team. They gave him a month to crack the new brand. He clearly remembers the brief.

“We were tasked with creating a design platform with a visual vocabulary that could last many years,” he says. “The client wanted the vocabulary to ensure that every time someone saw a Bell message they would know where it came from. Next, they wanted the platform to be cost-efficient. The beavers were too expensive because they were voiced by celebrities. Finally, they wanted to keep it simple. But that first point about brand recognition was the one that really stuck with me.”

Mroueh jammed with his design team around the logo, which had already been redesigned. “We kept looking at the logo and then it hit us. We realized that you could create a flexible template that would play off the logo by revealing different pieces of it from one message to the next,” says Mroueh. “You could use the shapes created by pieces of the logo – a corner here or a cross stroke there – as illustrative components within the overall image, which was always a photograph.”

Zulu coined the phrase ‘Bellements’ to describe this partial reveal of the logo. “For television, we proposed this world where every story would always take place on a white background in and around a giant Bell logo,” he explains. “And then we said, ‘What if we extended that idea? Always put it on a white background, whether it’s print, TV or online?’” And there it was: brand recognition, cost control and simplicity rolled into one.

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The launch of the platform happened during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The campaign cleverly integrated photos of athletes in different events with various ‘Bellements’ to make the connection between Bell and the Olympics and to reveal the new platform.

“Before we started down this path, there were 25 agencies working on the Bell account. First thing we did was cull that list down to three main agencies,” says Lithwick. “We needed three because of the volume of work. Zulu was still small, and Leo Burnett had strong design chops and the capability to support our retail and photography requirements. Lg2 was important for the Quebec market and has been phenomenal in helping to manage the brand there. Later we added Jam Direct and Media Experts. Every few quarters we swap assignments among the agency partners. We present ourselves as one. You wouldn’t know which iteration came out of which shop because they appreciate the brand platform.”

Such an approach could and often does spell disaster.

“[But] it really has been a true collaboration,” says Mroueh. “That is a very hard thing to do. For a lot of brands it doesn’t work. But it comes from how the relationship was set up in the beginning: fairly, honestly, and openly.” Of all the agencies that Bell approached, Zulu, Leo and Lg2 seemed aligned philosophically and were refreshingly absent of the kinds of domineering egos that seek control and seed conflict, says Lithwick. The evidence speaks for itself: the agencies are still on the account. The Bell team hasn’t changed either. This is one of those few instances where all of the clients and creatives are still working together after 12 years.

A big part of the brand platform is the concept of “Just got better,” which began with the rebrand in 2008 and is still being used today.

Better is a tough place to take a brand because if you are true to it, you actually have to live up to it. It has to become a corporate mantra that guides not just its advertising and communications, but product and service development, as well as employee experience.

“We always ask ourselves, ‘What just got better?’” says Lithwick. “For instance, if you look at in-home coverage, we have improved it with the introduction of wifi pods, which extends fast coverage to every room in your home. So we can say ‘In-home coverage just got better.’ If we are working on a sales aid, we ask ‘How can we make the messaging simpler and clearer so that the sales experience just got better?’ We try to imbue this sense in everything we do. It’s the company’s overarching guidepost to improving customer experience, products, services, advertising – the whole thing.”

As George Cope said when the new brand platform was revealed, “We have a new brand. Now we have to live it.”

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One of the most meaningful ways the brand has done that is with its focus on mental health. Bell’s “Let’s Talk” annual awareness-raising campaign has been a huge success for the last 10 years, shining a light on the concerns around mental health, which has long remained in the shadows due to stigmatization and a lack of access to care.

“We’re very proud of it,” says Lithwick. “It’s about making a difference in the lives of Canadians and it has grown every year. Our ‘Let’s Talk’ initiatives are driving awareness and action, including funding and support for organizations across the country.”

The program got an early boost with Olympian Clara Hughes as its founding spokesperson. “Clara’s role with the campaign started as a conversation with George following the Vancouver Olympics,” says Lithwick. “Clara is a phenomenal spokesperson, because as much as she’s accomplished in sport, she also has a compelling story about her own mental health.”

The program was announced in 2010 and during the ninth Bell Let’s Talk Day in 2019, Canadians and people worldwide took the mental health conversation to new heights, with more than 145 million interactions in talk, text and on social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Last year, Bell Let’s Talk Day topped one billion messages of support since the first campaign in 2011, bringing Bell’s total funding commitment to mental health to more than $100 million.

As a result of this effort, Cope was recently recognized as the Corporate Social Responsibility CEO of the Year by Report on Business. He said Bell’s investment and dedication to the cause has paid for itself based on all the training and education Bell has done with its own employees. There is a recent Deloitte study that proves paying attention to mental health in your organization is good for business. It has a financial impact and workplace practices make a difference. Bell is leading that charge.

Unity, Consistency and the Long Game

The words “We present ourselves as one,” uttered by Lithwick, could be considered a manifestation of the Bell brand’s singular focus. It clearly enjoys the commitment and consistency that comes from teams who are invested in the long game, which is rare for a publicly held enterprise subject to the quarterly guidance call. That is especially so for marketing execs, whose average tenure these days is about 43 months.

It has been 12 years – or 144 months – since the rebrand, so Devorah Lithwick is clearly beating the odds. She believes the brand platform itself “just gets better.”

“I look at what we are about to launch and ‘Just got better’ still works and I am still super excited by where we can take it in the future.”

Bell might just be one of those rare examples of a multibillion-dollar enterprise that’s run by people who understand brand – and prioritize it.

 

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140 YEARS OF BELL

1876 Alexander Graham Bell receives a patent for the telephone.
1880 Boston-based National Bell chooses a Chicago businessman, Charles Fleetford Sise, to organize a Canadian phone company. Sise becomes the founder of The Bell Telephone Company of Canada.
1964 Bell acquires 100% of Northern Electric (later Nortel Networks).
1968 Use of the corporate name “Bell Canada” is authorized.
1975 AT&T divests itself of Bell Canada.
1983 Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) becomes the parent company of Bell Canada and all shareholders of Bell Canada become shareholders of BCE.
1985 First mobile phone call in Canada takes place between the mayors of Montreal and Toronto.
1992 CRTC opens door to long-distance competition. Bell Mobility launches Canada’s first dedicated mobility retail stores.
1995 Bell debuts internet service Sympatico.
2000 BCE, Thomson, and Woodbridge Co. Ltd. create Bell Globemedia. Bell launches prepaid MVNO brand Solo.
2008 George Cope becomes President and CEO; completely relaunches the Bell brand.
2009 Bell turns on new broadband fibre across Québec and Ontario; becomes exclusive telecom partner to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver; purchases The Source and Virgin Mobile Canada; shuts down Solo Mobile.
2010 The brand wins CMA Marketer of the Year for its Olympics campaign; launches Fibe Internet and Fibe TV; launches Bell Mental Health Initiative.
2011 Bell acquires CTV and launches Bell Media. It also acquires an ownership position in MLSE.
2013 The company acquires Astral Media.
2014 Bell launches innovations like CraveTV, Mobile TV products and content partnerships with HBO and Showtime.
2016 Bell becomes Canada’s largest TV provider.
2017 The company acquires Manitoba Telecom; launches live TV streaming service Alt TV; announces agreement to acquire Alarmforce; debuts prepaid MVNO Lucky Mobile.
2018 Bell debuts TSN Direct and RDS Direct streaming services; assumes majority interest in Pinewood Toronto Studios; and partners with Howie Mandel to acquire the Just for Laughs comedy brand.
2019 George Cope announces retirement; Mirko Bibic becomes CEO.