Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that the final annual meeting of MCI before it is acquired by BT was a somber, even poignant affair. Though the company called MCI will disappear, its new owners recognize the value of the MCI brand and have assured us they intend to ensure its survival.For the MCI brand, this event will be the third major transition it has weathered. First, when the company left the comparative sleepiness of the corporate market for the high visibility and public scrutiny of the massses. Then, in the early 90s, MCI expanded its franchise to take the high tech lead. Now, MCI is the first major US phone company to successfully partner with an international counterpart to offer global service.
MCI’s brand essence, the accumulated stories that make up the company’s values and personality, fit the first two iterations of the company flawlessly. The first was translating this essence into an accessible image that would appeal to the masses while not turning off its business customers. This is the scrappy, cheap, resourceful, irreverent, and anti-monopoly MCI that we know and love. This image provided the platform for the second transition to high tech leader – what could better reflect the cutting edge of technology than such an array of attributes?
Whether MCI can effectively morph its story this time will depend on the culture that emerges once it is legally merged with BT. However, when MCI’s founder Bill McGowan said he would like to be reincarnated as the Chairman of some protected, cushy telephone monopoly, he may not have envisioned that company as having anything to do with MCI, itself. MCI has handled past transitions with alacrity, but will the formality and beaurocracy of BT permit that alacrity now when it is needed more than ever to help these two brands to capitalize on synergies and raise their combined brand value – or will this be a battle of wills?
The solution may very well lie in focusing on what they have in common – technology. Both BT and MCI have excellent reputations for providing advanced networks to such leading edge companies as Cisco. Both have had major technology wins in the consumer markets too. And both have lived through the wrenching change of a formerly monopolistic, now deregulated environment, albeit from different sides. From the common goal of technology their disparate personalities begin to coalesce. The poignancy of losing our own thouroughly American, die-in-the-ditch MCI may be mitigated by the emergence of a new definition of what is American, with MCI leaving its Horatio Alger-like struggle for survival behind for a Bill Gates’ style monopoly.