One year later: Inside Spark Digital

The rebrand of Spark, the biggest name change in recent times, also included Gen-i, one of the largest and most successful ICT services providers in the country. Renamed as Spark Digital, the old Gen-i didn’t need that much fixing. Or did it?

One year on, the old Gen-i is about to raise its profile with an above the line advertising campaign. We met with the new marketing director, Mark Redgrave and (fairly new) CEO Tim Miles.

Idealog: Gen-i was such a successful brand, why did you change?

Miles: I remember getting a call from [Group CEO] Simon Mouter to give me the good news about the name change. He said I could choose when to do it for Gen-i: we could take two or three years because there wasn’t anything wrong with the Gen-i name. It took me about a minute to say well, frankly, on my long list of things to do with Gen-i changing the brand isn’t on the top 50. But if we’re going to change names then we’d better to get on with it. A name change can create real momentum.  And you know if we’re going to make this whole Spark thing work, then Gen-i needs to be part of it.

And anyway, I’m picking that if we hadn’t changed then one of the first questions you would’ve asked me is: everything else is named Spark but why not you?

Image: Spark Digital CEO, Tim Miles

So apart from the name, what’s changed at Gen-i?

Well the name change was a visible expression of a much bigger change since we separated from Chorus in 2008. We needed to figure out what the hell we were going to be, what we going to stand for. We made two decisions.  One was that we were going to stand for New Zealand. Now that might sound trite, but we had a lot of investments outside of this country. So we exited the Cook Islands and AAPT in Australia and we brought that money back to New Zealand. Not because we needed it for the balance sheet. But we needed to support the second decision, which was to stand for enabling New Zealanders in a digital world.

Sounds lofty. What does that actually mean?

Yes, it can sound a bit waffly. But in reality there’s only one other outfit that can offer scale [Vodafone]. And they have many, many places in the world they can put their money. The other folk [ISPs] that are in the market don’t have a scale to make a big difference to New Zealand’s digital infrastructure. And in the wider IT marketplace there are a number of representatives of very key players here, the IBMs, the HPs, Fujitsu, and so on. But how many of those are going to be able to access capital to bring here?

So in the last few years we’ve built an over-the-top network (OTN) that’s far and away the biggest digital backbone in this country. It can handle huge amounts of traffic, going up and down.

Is this different from the national fibre rollout?

Yes, it’s everything that connects into it. A digital world has got to move very large transactions of very large volumes of data, very quickly and very cheaply, and we’re installing the technology that enables it to happen.

Okay, sounds important. What else?

Then we went out and invested, again very large sums of money, in wireless. You’ve seen us do that in Wi-Fi and in cellular. You saw us invest over $150 million just in mobile spectrum for 700 megahertz - more than anyone else. And we acquired Revera which was the largest cloud business in New Zealand; and we invested substantial money in data centres. 

So if you could think about a building that symbolised Telecom 20 years ago, it would be an exchange building: you had voice coming in and being rerouted elsewhere. But today that building is a data centre because it’s all about data coming in, being processed and moved out, all at incredible speeds. A digital world is a fast moving world.

So the name change became a metaphor of a deeper change?

Yes. It was also the right time because we already had proof points. I think if we’d stood up on August 8 and said ‘we’re going to stand for New Zealand and digital’, I think you would say, 'well why don’t you bugger off and come back when you’ve actually done something’.

It was also important internally. You know when we were Gen-i, I reckon a lot of people were quite pleased to not be called Telecom. Now we’re one company. Sure we’ve got all these coloured lanyards – Spark Digital is purple and corporate people are black etcetera.

But if you’re a customer you don’t give a stuff about our lanyards. We’re just all Spark. So that’s how we need to behave internally, and increasingly we are.

What does this mean from a marketing and communications point of view, Mark?

Redgrave: I arrived here with the brand change done. And immediately it was obvious that we had to fill that change with meaning. And I think that meaning is what Tim just talked about: Spark has the potential to have a relationship with customers from dawn to dusk, from cradle to grave, consumer to business. I think that’s incredible.

Image: Spark Digital marketing manager, Mark Redgrave

Sounds potentially confusing too?

I come from a place where b-to-b marketing is a completely outdated principle. We’re in a period of convergence: whether you’re at home or work, you’re touching the same applications, the same pieces of technology, from the minute you wake to the minute you go to bed. 

So for Spark Digital our positioning is going to be very much around the customer’s experience, how those technologies change your business and life, not about the technology itself. 

Can you give an example?

Yes, take Intercity buses. The old Gen-i would talk about putting Wi-Fi on buses for so-and-so a price and in such-and-such a timeframe. I think Spark Digital talks about how we’ve transferred InterCity’s business by allowing the passenger to be connected from the minute they step on to the minute they get off.  It’s just a better way to tell the story. I think the important thing is to focus on the value that technology can create.  Not the price they paid for the boxes. 

That same convergence is happening in marketing. What channels will you use to communicate this customer experience story?

Content marketing’s very, very important. I think social is also very important and you know I really do see a b-to-c/b-to-b convergence where social has a strong role to play. And from a brand perspective we need to tell our story. So there’s a role for above-the-line. We are pulling together a story that we’re going to want to tell. 

And what’s that story?

Well, imagine you’re a business with 50 to 250 full-time staff. There are a lot of practical products we can offer. Whether it’s video conference or it’s Skype for business – there are some great products there. But our story is not about the tech. If you’re running an electrician’s business and you’ve got 10 vans and a field crew, then let’s stop talking about saving 10 cents in the dollar on gear and instead talk about $150,000 of productivity gains we can give you starting on Monday.

That’s a hard message to tell in advertising.

Yes, so it’s a mix with the biggest priority on delivering great solutions to customers. One phrase that I love is ‘that the best sales guy I ever had was a happy customer’. That’s the crux of it.  So we’re very focused and we haven’t got it all right yet I can tell you that.  But we’re very focused on trying to get our customers to be happy.

Miles: The other thing we need to do is provide leadership about the future of business in a digital age.

We run a series of events called Forward Live [held last week] and we brought in some fantastic speakers. And we’ve got some of our own folk who are really up at the leading edge of digital disruption. We’ve had a phenomenal response to those events. 

The other thing, is that we are digitally disrupting ourselves. We’ve got a programme in here called Digital First. One of the things we do a lot, Simon Mouter and I, is that we tell our own story of disruption. I think we do a pretty fair job of telling that story, not to say it’s all brilliant, but to say ‘here’s the stuff we’ve done, especially about we handle the internal change’. It’s not all glorious.  But people say ‘these guys whatever they’re doing, they’re having a real go at something’. So we’re sort of eating our own dog food.