In July, Yell Group, the owner of Yellow Pages directories, rebranded the digital side of its business as Hibu (pronounced 'high boo'), while also posting an annual loss of £1.4bn.
The brand decided it needed a dynamic identity to signal its repositioning as a digital business of the future, with a strategy aimed at creating a transactional platform. It has been trialling a local 'emarketplace' in Oxford and enabling participating businesses to create basic web and ecommerce sites.
Four months later, it is obvious that Hibu's performance has been anything but dynamic. The business' share price recently slumped to less than 0.5p after it issued the latest in a long line of profit warnings.
The brand has been struggling in the past few years since a debt-fuelled expansion drive, where it snapped up rivals in markets such as Spain and parts of Latin America.
It recently appointed Laura Broderick as its global chief marketing officer. Broderick, who has worked at the company for six months as vice-president of ecommerce at Yell, filled the position left vacant by Jenny Ashmore, who left the company in May without a job to go to.
But what does the future hold for Hibu and its directories business, particularly as consumers are tending to turn to the internet to a greater degree when they want to find local services and phone numbers?
We asked Kris Lea, managing director at KL Marketing Consultancy, who has held marketing roles at Thomson Directories and was most recently head of marketing at Touch Local, and Bridget Angear, joint strategic officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which previously managed the Yellow Pages account.
Hibu's share price has fallen 90% this year
The company employs 13,000 people
It had borrowings of £2.2bn as of July this year
DIAGNOSIS - Brand Health Check
Two industry experts on what steps Hibu should take to turn its fortunes around
KRIS LEA, MANAGING DIRECTOR, KL MARKETING CONSULTANCY (former head of marketing, Touch Local)
I worked for several years for Yellow Pages' main rival and confess that at the time I was envious of its established brand and healthy ad budgets.
However, this now feels like a distant memory. The annual distribution of more than 20m directories can no longer ensure dominance.
The market has evolved. Directory publishers must embrace technology, so business owners know that they can be found and contacted, regardless of where consumers search.
With directories seemingly dying, Hibu must identify product and partnership opportunities to strengthen its portfolio and deliver results. In the days of JR Hartley it was simple yet effective - Yellow Pages. There's a risk that the rebrand, even if only for the digital proposition, will take significant time and investment to gather momentum.
- The shelf life of directories is limited, so digital products should sit above print, not alongside.
- Adopt a sales strategy that reflects greater emphasis on digital.
- Identify partnerships that enhance the digital portfolio.
BRIDGET ANGEAR, JOINT STRATEGIC OFFICER, ABBOTT MEAD VICKERS BBDO (which previously managed the Yellow Pages account)
In his management book Good to Great, Jim Collins uses Charles 'Cork' Walgreen as an example of someone who transformed a business, by getting rid of more than 500 restaurants and focusing on making it the US' most convenient drug store.
Something as transformational needs to happen at Hibu if Yell is to survive. It must work out what business it wants to be in. This is certainly not the printed directory business, and probably not even the online directory business, longer term.
What could a brand that has always understood the needs of small businesses offer? Website design? Database management? Mailing lists and relationship marketing?
Yell must invest its diminishing print revenue in emerging technologies and platforms. It must step into the future or be consigned to the past.
- Decide what business it should be in.
- Deliver core expertise on the needs of small businesses.
- Invest in technologies and platforms of the future.