Orange ceased to be just a colour when a fledgling mobile phone company was first launched in Britain in April 1994. Today the word is just as likely to evoke the catchphrase, 'The future's bright... ', as it is the image of a fruit.
But while Orange's 17 million UK customers have had a largely unbroken and positive association with the mobile company, the situation for its employees has been very different. In 1999, having licensed itself in countries as diverse as Hong Kong and Israel, Orange was sold to Mannesmann AG. In 2001, it was then acquired by France Telecom, while in 2006, Wanadoo, its internet-search engine business, ceased to be and was renamed Orange Broadband. The last of these changes was part of a group-wide strategy to make the Orange brand dominant. The impact, however, was that many staff suffered a mini identity crisis.
"We'd defined what we stood for as a business looking out," says David Roberts, employer brand manager, Orange, "but a brand is also about the promise and it was felt this needed explaining internally - to form part of our HR identity. "
Roberts, who has been with Orange since 2002, but spent his first four years in its HR department, is one of an emerging breed of HR professionals who takes the concept of the internal brand (he calls it the 'employer offer') extremely seriously. Since November 2007 he has been leading a project that he says represents the first of a new style of employer branding - one that is not only used as a recruitment tool to attract talent to Orange but also internally to retain staff by creating an internal HR identity across all of its staff communications - everything from identifying talent, to pensions advice, internal comms, share schemes, and employee involvement.
"Research carried out among our 12,500 staff revealed that internally we were still seen as a 1990s company," he says. "At the same time, they recognised the European opportunities France Telecom provided, but that it was the Orange name they identified with."
It was these findings - which Roberts says was a conflict between the rational outlook staff had, and the emotional benefits that the brand still carried - that influenced his decision to devise two cartoon characters that are now used in all of its internal communications. "One of our characters has a heart - representing the emotion of the company (see pictures)", he says. "The other has a light bulb, to represent the rational," he adds.
The characters may sound simple, but they are highly complicated - even if the staff audience is not consciously aware of it. "We launched the characters with workshops involving all our HR community, who helped me refine the characters," says Roberts. "For instance, everything to do with 'rewards' is always drawn with trees in the background or foreground. This is because rewards are things you can grow." So far more than 70 images exist, each with a head and heart variation. They are all subtly different but use the same characters to cover everything from performance to the home environment.
The characters are a far cry from previous attempts. "What existed was a real mixture. There were balloons representing pay, Top Trump cards were used to represent goals, while our shares pack bizarrely had a dog on it," muses Roberts. "Now, the character set is fixed, and looks consistent."
The HR team was briefed on the set of images over the New Year, in particular how to use and think about the pallet of head and heart images available to them when building their own internal comms. "The point about having a well thought through template is that HR can start using them cleverly when crafting their own internal comms," says Roberts. "For attracting staff, HR may want to adjust the number of illustrations to be represented by, say, 70% emotional (heart) images and 30% rational (light bulb) images. The subtle message is that there is an emotional experience to be had from working at Orange. In other comms, such as pensions and shares, this balance may want to lean more to rational imagery."
The characters appear on both the external and internal websites. Click on www.orange.co.uk/whyworkhere, for instance, and the explanation of what the characters represent is more obvious. Rational character (Roberts says he has not given names to them) and heart character are at a crossroads, with a signpost pointing one way (shown by a heart) and another way (shown by the light bulb). By clicking on each, the respective 'rational' and 'emotional' reasons for working at Orange are explained.
"I think this gives HR the ability to sell the brand back to the business, and back to staff," he continues. "I want HR to start thinking more like marketers - what they can deliver, and how to do it well. It's not about spinning a line to staff, but giving them visual cues about what Orange's key selling points are."
In spring the characters were released, although not with the huge fanfare that some internal comms are often launched. The idea was for staff to gradually get used to seeing the same people, with subtlety once more the watchword. Already there has been a 10% increase in visitors to Orange's intranet site, while for outsiders looking in on Orange's recruitment page, there has been a 25% improvement on the time browsers spend on the site.
Even though Roberts works in the brand team, he says he will now leave it to HR to be the main drivers of the communications that come from it. And, because huge investment has gone into devising the characters (he won't say exactly how much), they will not disappear after six months. "We envisage using them for at least two years, and most probably longer," says Roberts. "We have to measure our progress on this, and this month we will be doing our first survey asking staff if they believe it helps them understand the messaging of Orange better."