Curve sees the telecoms brand going toe-to-toe with the tech giants and hints at a big journey ahead for Vodafone, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
“I would say that the technology companies are our competition. When you ask consumers who they buy smart devices from, they don't say, O2 or Telefonica or Deutsche Telekom,” says Pamela Brown, Vodafone’s CMO of Smart Tech. “They talk about Amazon, Apple, Samsung - that they're the competition in consumer's minds for smart devices.”
Pamela is talking about the launch of a new Vodafone product, the Curve. The smart tracker marks the first time that the global telecoms brand has designed and built its own physical product – and as such, it’s now going toe-to-toe with a new set of competitors. It’s an area and challenge Pamela understands well – before joining Vodafone two and a half years ago, she worked for over three years as Head of Marketing and Insights’ for British Gas’s smart thermostat brand Hive.
The marketing challenge for Pamela and her team has been quite clear. By positioning themselves as a tech brand rather than a telecoms supplier, Vodafone has to establish that it has the credentials to play in that arena. Moreover, by launching a new product, they also have to drive demand and create desirability and intrigue, which means a focus on product and a tactile, luxe aesthetic.
“Those credentials are really about being considered trustworthy, desirable and innovative. And Vodafone does a lot on the trustworthy pillar, but not much on the other two from a customer perspective,” explains Pamela. “So for us in deciding to build a new identity, it was really about how do we really bring to life desirability and innovativeness because that's what will resonate with our target audience. That's what they expect from a smart tech player.”
Though trackers are not new, Vodafone feel that with four layers of tech and use of SIM card, the Curve is a next step with a host of new uses. That means that the marketing has to explicitly model use cases in photography and infographics. The tracker’s quick alert button means that it’s something that can be used to allow kids playing outside the home a bit more freedom, or, suggests Pamela, something that can be easily used by vulnerable adults living far from family.
Curve isn’t the first time Vodafone has tried to build a presence in the world of smart tech. It’s fairly established in business-to-business Internet of Things. In terms of the consumer market, they previously launched sub-brand ‘V By Vodafone’ saw the telecoms giant partner with third party tech companies like Arlo, but they soon discovered that consumers found this offering confusing and it didn’t centre Vodafone. And so this time around, Vodafone decided that it was going to design and develop its own product itself, bringing in top product designers. Curve is the first launch in a range of smart products created internally, and the name of the new range is a statement of intent: ‘Designed & Connected by Vodafone’.
But the products aren’t the only things that Vodafone is keeping close; they’ve also built an inhouse creative agency specifically for this new smart tech range. Typically Vodafone works with big WPP agencies for its brand marketing, but in this case the team decided they’d need to have a creative team that was embedded with the company, who knew the product and culture inside out. If Curve is Vodafone’s baby, they wanted a team of creatives who could feel the same sense of ownership and closeness to the consumers
“I've worked with some fantastic, wonderful agencies in my time. I think when it came to Vodafone, it just felt like we needed fresh,” says Pamela, who explains that the first appointment she made when she joined the company was creative director Neill Furmston.
The creative agency includes copywriters and designers, though in terms of production they still collaborate with outside production partners and computer graphics specialists. It’s an approach that has allowed the team to move fast – Pamela explains that a Curve intro video was pulled together in five days to be screened alongside the Vodafone Q2 results. She thinks that by being embedded in the company and having seen the product’s development at close quarters allowed the copywriters to work more quickly.
“I think being closer to the customer is a really important part of that. You know, we're living and breathing the customer all the time. When we were in the office, we had our customer labs, we'd invite customers in; now we're doing everything over Zoom, but you know, our creative team are hand-in-glove, listening to consumers. So whether that's writing our copy lines or building a new, how to video when we're putting ourselves in our customer's shoes really.”
Having that creative talent inhouse has also helped Vodafone’s internal comms. The new smart tech range marks an expansion of the brand’s vision and long term business strategy and they’re keen to get all of Vodafone’s 98,996 employees at all levels on board. They’ve heavily discounted Curve for employees and have created assets that employees can share on LinkedIn should they choose.
Ultimately, the launch of Curve is the launchpad for Vodafone’s smart tech department and the ‘Designed & Connected by Vodafone’ platform, so there’s been a lot of pressure to ensure that the product design, customer experience and marketing intertwine perfectly.
“It can make or break something because you could build a beautiful product, but the marketing might not bring it to life in quite the right way… And if you do those things really, really well, then you've got the powerful combination. I've definitely worked in businesses or, you know, seen from afar businesses that might have a brilliant product, but fail to bring it to life in the right way or have brought something to life in a beautiful way that the product fails to deliver,” says Pamela.
Of course, in any normal year, marketing a new product line that also marks an important future-proofing strategy for one’s whole business would be a pretty sizeable challenge. Curve, though, has arrived in the year of Covid-19. The development of the product, brand and marketing has been a two year journey – but the team couldn’t just thunder ahead with their existing plans. Thankfully, the aforementioned closeness of customer insights, marketing and creative meant that the team were able to adapt and come up with a careful, Covid-sensitive launch strategy. After all, it was obvious that the heart of an extreme lockdown, when people were barely leaving their homes, was not the best time to launch a GPS tracker.
The first thing they did was a piece of research to understand what people were worried about – health, loved ones and the economy – and then used that to understand the specific problems that the Curve would be able to solve further down the line.
“We were very intentional. We said, we will launch when lockdown is lifted, but there's probably still some social distancing or physical distancing in place. And we think there are relevant use cases,” explains Pamela. So a rise in dog ownership might see people need to keep track of their new family members, or parents working from home might need to get their kids out of their hair and down to the local park. “So I think there are real use cases for this product right now. I do think this did influence our decision about when we launched and we did make a very firm decision.”
Covid-19 has been a crucial time for Vodafone more broadly as customers have relied on the network and services to stay connected. They’ve offered payment holidays for customers in financial difficulties as a result of lockdown and the company has given out unlimited data SIM cards to disadvantaged pupils to allow them to keep up with online studies. It’s been a test for the company’s values – just as the move into the Internet of Things and the launch of Curve shows how the company plans to build on its promise in the future.
“I think this is pioneering for Vodafone,” says Pamela, proudly. “They've been clear about their strategy in wanting to find more ways to connect with consumers and offered their customers, our customers, more ways to stay connected. And it really does ladder up to our purpose: connecting for a better future.”