EE’s future may be in spectrum, but its success very much lies in its bricks and mortar. That was the message after EE dropped its late, largely unlamented moniker Everything Everywhere last week. And then there was the small matter of announcing the 16 UK cities that will be able to use its 4G network by the end of the year, a much wider rollout than the ‘small scale’ launch promised earlier in 2012.
Marc Allera, EE’s chief sales officer [pictured], revealed that all 700 Orange, T-Mobile and Everything Everywhere branches will change their facades literally overnight, all becoming EE stores that will sell products from its three brands. He said: ‘It will give us a much more consistent look and feel. It’s a massive programme for us.’
While store managers were informed of how the business was changing the day before EE unveiled its plans at London’s Science Museum – with 400 managers crammed into its cinema and 300 being informed by phone – work was already underway to prepare the operator for the changes. Staff were being retrained to become operating system experts, with call centre staff answering all potential queries from billing to technical advice without transferring a customer. The operator has also been quietly upgrading its store portfolio. Allera said: ‘The refurbishment, investment and training show how important the retail portfolio is to our chain. People in stores will be integral to making this a success.’
Not an easy transition
According to some industry observers, this won’t be easy. While 4G has captured headlines, and not just because of the legal threats, Shaun Collins, MD at CCS Insight, feels each UK operator has a job on its hands conveying the benefits of next generation technology. He said: ‘The average man on the street is still trying to get their head around 4G.’ Indeed, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, raised laughter from an audience of seasoned technology journalists and manufacturers at last week’s event when he tried to praise 4G, ‘the implications of which I do not fully understand’.
Allera highlighted video as a key selling point of the technology, although EE also used mobile payments and smart metering to plug 4G in a promotional video of the new brand. He said: ‘Video simply isn’t good enough on a 3G network with buffering speeds and latency. I think 4G will create a shift in consumer behaviour. If you look at a lot of countries that have 4G, they talk about the explosion in video use. The demand is there. Who doesn’t want to have fast access to the internet?’
EE was cagey on pricing, although Allera said ‘there’s no doubt that customers will place a value on superfast internet on the move’. He added: ‘The market we look at a lot is the US. It has had big changes in consumer behaviour and how operators market and talk to consumers and that has been an important case study to look at.’ This raises the possibility of unlimited data plans or potentially sharing data across a number of devices. CCS Insight’s Collins suggested that striking the right balance in terms of 4G pricing will be a challenge. He said: ‘If it’s too high, then 4G will only really be a business proposition. If it’s too low and the network can’t cope with the volume of customers and it gets compromised, it will undermine confidence in 4G before it really gets started.’
The future’s bright?
So what does this mean for Orange and T-Mobile? Signs showcasing two of Britain’s best known brands will be taken down from above shopfronts when the retail estate switches to EE. Allera reiterated EE CEO Olaf Swantee’s commitment to three brands and said the marketing plans to distinguish them were ‘very clear’. T-Mobile is the value proposition, Orange is a ‘more for more’ company, as Allera put it, giving customers rewards and extras, while EE will showcase its superfast services across 4G and fibre broadband. But Collins argued the rebranding puts Orange in a difficult position in the squeezed middle as it’s no longer a premium brand and looks slightly lost alongside a resurgent T-Mobile, which has been buoyed by its Full Monty tariff. He said: ‘We expect EE to move to a single brand within 18 months and that’s the right thing to do.’
There are suggestions that Orange and T-Mobile customers will be able to upgrade early to a 4G service. While questions about upgrades were rejected in a similar way to pricing plans, Allera said: ‘It will be simple and easy for Orange and T-Mobile [customers] to move to superfast broadband and 4G and be among the first to do so.’
Manufacturers are not the only element of the industry vying for the affections of smartphone buyers. There are an unprecedented number of smartphone customers out of contract this autumn, as they await new devices before committing to another two years paying them off. EE’s 4G network along with a plethora of new handsets could see the operator’s acquisition numbers soar. Collins said: ‘It’s going to get brutal. When you look at the UK market and what’s happening this autumn, you have the iPhone, Windows Phone 8 devices and new handsets from Nokia, Samsung and HTC. There’s going to be an awful lot of choice for the end user.’ EE will hope its frontline staff are up to the challenge.