I’m not cynical enough to believe that anyone is grateful for our nation’s recent spate of natural disasters taking up the bulk of the media’s time. However, one must think the folks at Vodafone are somehow thankful that this has overshadowed the storm of bad publicity about their brand.

While the spotlight may be off for now, Vodafone is far from out of trouble. As they say: character isn’t forged during a crisis, it is merely revealed.

And so it seems with one of the country’s strongest brands. For the last fifteen years or so, we’ve been used to Vodafone’s fun-loving, slightly irreverent advertising messages. Their language has always been relaxed and rather Gen Y. By comparison, Telstra has always been a little older, more conservative and, well, a bit more ‘government’. And Optus? Well, they’ve just gone all Dreamworks with their whacky animals. Vodafone – they were always the cool guys.

But let’s look at the last six months. Vodafone’s decreasing network performance has seemingly been matched only by a corresponding decrease in their customer service standards (although that’s not coincidental, as the large number of complaints often leads to snowballing call centre wait times). Late last year, things reached a tipping point as major news sites like smh.com.au and theage.com.au began running almost daily stories about Vodafone’s woes. At the same time, over 10,000 customers registered their interest in a class action lawsuit. Then, to make matters even worse, members of Vodafone’s dealer network got stuck in too, claiming they’d lost revenue and were being just as poorly treated as the telco’s customers.

And what was Vodafone’s reaction? I’m not talking about the reports of poor call centre practices, the poor communication with dealers, or the overall lack of helpful customer service; I’m talking about the fact that they lost their cool. The statements coming out from Vodafone went from them being ‘one of us’ – a friendly, familiar voice – to having a ‘company vs the customer’ tone, heavily laden with management speak and corporate euphemisms. The stuff which sounds heavily vetted and completely void of any real sentiment – you know, the sort of things other, less cool companies do and say all the time.

To the market, this feels like a revelation of their true character. It’s kind of like finding out the cool new guy used to be Chess Club President at his old school; Vodafone wore the right clothes and spoke the right slang, but lately they’ve been proving that underneath it all, they’re just the same old corporate squares who probably live in a very different world to their customers.

There are plenty of recent examples (here’s one) showing how to apologise in a way befitting the brand image you’ve spent so much effort building. Taking a personal approach, speaking to the consumer in a way that seems to respect rather than patronise them, seems to be the best way of going about it (which, incidentally, is easier for start-ups and entrepreneurial companies like HubSpot where there’s usually more centralised control and it doesn’t have to cross a hundred desks for sign-off).

Anyway, forgetting the apologies for a minute, one has to wonder why Vodafone is bothering to continue their usual advertising at all. On one hand they’ve got management pumping out excuses in PR-speak; on the other, their ads are pretending their sky isn’t falling in and they’re still the cool guys in town. And – at least anecdotally – no-one is buying either message right now.

So much is the disconnect between the PR and the marketing side of their communications that Vodafone’s advertising people recently offered this piece of genius:


One probably shouldn’t talk about punching anything in the face when that’s exactly what many of your 5 million or so customers want to do to you right now.

In fact, I’d argue that Vodafone should pull their spots altogether for the time being. After all, when there is that much negative sentiment out in the marketplace, it’s likely their ads are only serving to bring all that negative sentiment to mind. Remember the theory that it’s up to nine times more

expensive to gain a new customer than it is to keep an existing one? Well the latter group are leaving Vodafone in droves right now, and they’re advertising this fact to their friends via social networks.

So while Vodafone management would argue that they have to maintain market share somehow and need to continue their aggressive advertising schedule, I’d suggest stopping the leaks in the bottom of the bucket before trying to increase the water coming in from the top.

Which means redirecting some of the spend into DM campaigns for existing customers, for a start. They’ve done some brilliant ones before (I still remember receiving this one years ago when I was actually with Vodafone). They could use these to not only explain how they’re handling the current situation, but also to tell people they’re redirecting their advertising budget towards better network performance. That’s got to be worth some points. Then to close, they could throw in a loyalty bonus as a real way of thanking them for their patience. What’s more, they could even do this in a consistent voice that matches the rest of their advertising, rather than the ‘old-fashioned corporation caught out for not being as cool as we’d hoped’ communications that have come from them recently.

We are, after all, in the age of social media and the way you treat your existing customers has never been more important in determining whether or not you’ll get any new ones.

So, what do you think? Should a company in their situation ignore the problem for as long as possible and hope it goes away (while continuing big ATL spend to counteract negative sentiment), or face it head on early and go into damage recovery with existing customers in an effort to keep them? Leave your comments below or get in touch with me via @OtherAndrew.