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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK
Farewell from Freeserve
Magazine's review of advertising

Freeserve advert
Hippies ditch the psychedelic Kombi van...
THE PRODUCT: Freeserve

THE BRIEF: Announce to customers it is rebranding as Wanadoo

THE MEDIUM: TV, posters, newspapers, online

THE SCRIPT: Hippies shave their beards, shed their sandals and generally get with it, to a Tommy Vance voiceover and Ravonettes soundtrack.


Back in the mists of time (even as far back as 1998), it was quite normal for internet providers to charge a subscription of about £15 a month for dial-up access, which would be in addition to the cost of the phone calls.

For many people who wanted to get online but were wary of how much it would cost, help was at hand. Electrical shop Dixons started giving away CDs which would give access to its new creation, Freeserve.

Before long Freeserve became the biggest internet provider in the country; nearly every other supplier followed its lead and charged people only for the time they were online. It became, according to web folklore, the UK's first internet brand.

New Freeserve ad
in favour of sleek modern model
In its advertising, Freeserve played heavily on the theme of being free - hippies dancing round in expressions of free love, nudists playing volleyball free from the cares of the world.

But the world has changed. Ever growing numbers of people have broadband and pay a flat rate for always-on access. Notions of dialling up will become as passť as nude volleyball. So Freeserve is cutting itself free of those roots, dropping its name, and adopting the brand of its current parent company, the French firm Wanadoo.

Rebranding can be tricky - how will customers feel if, one day, the item they have bought for years suddenly has a completely different name? Are they expected to accept, 1984-style, that the old brand simply never existed? Alternatively, will they be happy if subtly informed of the change, along the lines of "Veet is the new name for Immac"?

What if the company believes, as Freeserve does, that its customers have real affection for and loyalty to the previous brand name?

Peter Turner, director of marketing, believes customer goodwill has helped Freeserve remain market leader, even in the face of competition from the likes of BT and AOL. "They appreciate what we did with the internet," he says.

"But Freeserve is essentially a pay-as-you-go narrowband brand. The future is broadband. Wanadoo is in Spain, France, the Netherlands, and so we want it to be the same brand here, in the same way that AOL is still called AOL right across the world."

Old Freeserve ad
The company's previous approach
The current round of advertising (created, like the original adverts, by M&C Saatchi) shows hippies throwing off their hippy ways to become modern. The invitation is there for customers to join the trip. Whether they will see Wanadoo as a brand which exudes "power, passion and dynamism" - how Wanadoo sees itself - is another matter. (Users do get to keep their existing Freeserve e-mail addresses).

Sean Brierley, author of the Advertising Handbook, is not convinced the whole thing is necessary.

Rebrandings, on the whole, are simply done to mask bigger corporate issues that are going on behind the scenes, he says. That, and with notorious cases like Marathon/Snickers, saving money on producing two sets of wrappers.

Opal Fruits, Marathon, Jif, Wispa, Cellnet, One2One, Abbey National, Midland Bank, Channel 5, Oil of Ulay, Line One, Mercury, BSB, British Caledonian
But the value of most dot.com brands has been exaggerated, he says, because all any of them really have to work with is being fast and cheap.

"There's not a lot you can discriminate between brands on that basis," he says.

"I don't see this as a massive gamble on Freeserve's part - I think the original campaign was pretty dire. What were they trying to say? Was it a retro thing - were they trying to say it was a 1970s brand? It was very confused - why should naked hippies walking round a field help a brand?

"If it was all just a pun on the word 'free' then it's a pretty rubbish pun. Punning on names is just so weak as a creative message. I don't think they have got much to lose in ditching it."

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