Should a Mobile Network Give You Something Back?

It's hard for a customer to relate when a big company tells them a portion of their money is going to charity; although it's an admirable gesture, it's still difficult to feel that connection, to feel like you're reallysomething.

How often do you speak with affection about your mobile network?

The choice of who gives us our minutes and data represents one the most important brand associations in our lives, yet for many people your network is like your gas company - they do a job for you, but that's it. There's little humanity, no authenticity and (ironically) there's no connection.

This week I heard about the launch of The People's Operator - the UK's latest carrier that is aiming to shake the industry up by doing something a little different.

Their ambition is to use their network to give something back, to turn all those minutes and messages and megabytes into charitable donations, pledging to give 25% of every profit made to one of their 300 partner charities. Furthermore - and this is the really interesting part - an added 10% of your monthly spend is donated straight to a charity of your choice which can be your local school or local community project. The network set up the payments for you, so all you have to do is give them a call and name your charity.

For me this is the killer point. It's hard for a customer to relate when a big company tells them a portion of their money is going to charity; although it's an admirable gesture, it's still difficult to feel that connection, to feel like you're really doing something. But being given the opportunity to choose your own cause instantly gives the operation a much more personal feel. It's hard to feel guilty about running up a massive bill when a big chunk of it could be going straight to your local school.

In a world where people are busier than ever - and on their phones half the time - it strikes me as a clever move to make giving as easy as possible. Everybody wants to do their bit for charity, but when times are as tough it's a sad fact that it is often the first thing to go: a recent study found that charitable donations dropped 20% in 2011-2012. By taking away the hassle of donating, as well as the financial sting - it is, after all, money you would have spent on your phone anyway - The People's Operator appears to make it more doable.

One of the brains behind the company is well-known philanthropist and entrepreneur Andrew Rosenfeld, the co-founder and former Chief Executive of property firm Minerva PLC.

'I don't want to be like every other big ugly horrible company.' he says. 'We've got a great opportunity to rewrite the language and make people feel more comfortable, to get closer to what we're all about. There's usually such a huge distance between the customer and the provider, whether it's banking, phone companies or power companies. We believe that you can make money, feel good about it and your customer can be happy. Why not?'.

It's the little things that make the difference when it comes to building this sort of authentic brand. The People's Operator promise to have each new sim card hand delivered, accompanied by a signed sticker detailing the name of the person that packaged it and the charity closest to their heart. It's a simple touch, but one that adds a sprinkling of humanity to what can often be a faceless and rather dull process.

What intrigues me most about all this is how attractive this could be for women. At Lady Geek our proprietary research shows that what women want most from brands is Reassurance, Emotion and Authenticity. Women (and mothers, in particular), grow cynical and jaded when it comes to big companies. What connects to women is an authentic, approachable brand that feels tangible and human, not a collection of indecipherable tariffs and robotic call centres. A utility company that gives something back might just gain their attention.

Social awareness and charitable causes register highly on many women's list of priorities. Research has shown that 58% of women give to charity in a typical month compared to 52% of men. When researching my recent book, Little Miss Geek, I attempted to get to the bottom of why young women don't want to work in the technology sector. I found that one of the most common reasons was that girls didn't believe that tech could offer them the chance to help people.

This is a myth that companies like The People's Operator are disproving. Ventures like theirs show that making money and philanthropy can - and should - go hand in hand. The more that mobile technology becomes integral to our lives, the more of a role it should play in the way we help each other.

Rosenfeld clearly believes that The People's Operator will do well with women. 'A lot of these big utilities are designed by men, built by men, for men, and what we have here is something that has an empathy a sensitivity and something that is personal to alot of people.' But isn't The People's Operator designed by men, built by men? 'Yeah but i think we've got instinct. What motivates us are people and communities in a way that big companies just don't get.' Hmm. It's disappointing to see that, at present, there are no prominent senior women working at the company. While there's no doubt that the ethos of The People's Operator are commendable, and will, I believe, appeal to many women, if they are going to capitalize on the huge female market I would urge them to get more senior women round the top table, fast. It doesn't matter how good your 'instincts' are, they will be no match for the input and ideas you'll receive in a true culture of diversity.

So how big do they want to be? Rosenfeld is bullish about their ambitions:

'Our aim is to be one of the major telecoms providers in the UK over the next few years. We're not here just to try and help out a couple of local charities, we're here to be a contender in the telecoms industry. If we can do that we can help change a lot of people's lives'.

If it does succeed, it could have some wonderful repercussions for the third sector. Not only could their system do a lot of good for charities in the short term, but if The People's Operator proves to be as successful as those inside the company are hoping for then a good deal many more brands might start following their lead.

Will their charitable angle be enough to make them stand out from the crowd? More senior women round the table would certainly help them crack the female market. But if push comes to shove between profits and philanthropy, what will be the first to go?

Times are tough, and the telecoms industry is a notoriously tough nut to crack. The People's Operator are certainly offering something new, but can they do enough to really make a difference?

Only time will tell.

@belindaparmar is the author of Little Miss Geek which is out in paperback and kindle edition on Amazon. Follow us on Twitter @LadyGeekTV


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