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Comcast enters rebranding territory

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / February 13, 2010

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Comcast Corp., the nation’s biggest cable company, is spending millions of dollars to create a household name: Xfinity.

Comcast launched a national ad campaign yesterday to attach the label Xfinity to its cable television, Internet, and telephone services, which serve millions of customers in 39 states and the District of Columbia.

“Xfinity will stand for the best experience in the marketplace,’’ said David Watson, executive vice president of operations for Comcast’s cable TV operations.

Comcast planned to unveil the Xfinity brand here and in 10 other markets yesterday, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, and the company’s hometown of Philadelphia. The ads, which are narrated by Jon Hamm, the star of “Mad Men,’’ were scheduled to debut during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Developed by New York ad agency Siegel & Gale and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners of San Francisco, the campaign will roll out to other Comcast markets through the year.

Comcast would not say how much it is spending on the campaign, but it is a major rebranding effort that will extend from the TV ads to the logos on customer bills and the sides of company repair trucks.

The name change gives Comcast a chance to slap its own brand on relatively generic technologies like high-speed Internet access and telephone service, according to Watson. “You can’t own ‘video on demand,’ ’’ he said.

Larry Weber, chairman of W2 Group, a marketing company in Waltham, said Comcast risks diluting an already strong brand name by adding the Xfinity tag. “Just work harder on telling your story to your customers, instead of just changing your dress,’’ he said. “I think it’s wrong to change names just to be changing names.’’

But John Deighton, professor at the Harvard Business School, thinks it’s a shrewd move that could help Comcast transcend its roots in the cable television industry. “It’s elevating Comcast out of the cable industry and into the communications industry,’’ he said.

The new brand name will also highlight a host of upgrades that the company has been introducing since 2008, when Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts announced Project Infinity, which aimed to make video on demand available to subscribers on any digital device that connects to the Internet.

That same year, Comcast adopted a new broadband Internet standard that allows for sharply higher data download speeds. Today, it offers Internet download speeds of up to 50 megabits per second, and Watson said Xfinity markets will see speeds of up to 100 megabits within 100 days of the rebranding.

In Massachusetts, Comcast is upgrading all of its systems to offer 100 high definition channels, up from 40 in some communities, and to increase its selection of on-demand content.

Meanwhile, Comcast is in the midst of a $30 billion deal to purchase NBC Universal, a giant media company whose holdings include the Universal film studio and television networks NBC, CNBC, and Bravo. The acquisition, announced in December, has come under intense scrutiny in Congress. If it goes through, Comcast will become a leader in creating entertainment as well as distributing it.

“They’re big in content, and they plan to get a lot bigger,’’ said Deighton. “Their vision of themselves is as much more than a cable company.’’

Besides, he said, cable TV companies generally have a bad reputation among consumers for high prices and poor customer service. “Being a cable company is not a fun thing to be,’’ Deighton said.

Even before the Xfinity launch, Comcast offered a new 30-day, money-back guarantee for new customers and a $20 credit if a service technician misses an appointment.

Comcast will use the Xfinity rebranding to talk up its improved customer service as well as its technical upgrades. “There’s a lot to be proud of,’’ said Steve Hackley, Comcast’s senior vice president for the Greater Boston region. “We want to take credit for it.’’

W2 Group’s Weber said such a rebranding is “a bit old-fashioned’’ and a new name is unlikely to impress consumers. “I think the public is smarter than that now,’’ he said.

Hackley agreed that it takes more than rebranding to change customer attitudes. “Consumers are sophisticated,’’ he said. “You can’t fake it.’’ But he added that Comcast customers will find plenty of substance behind the Xfinity brand. “You just need to get their attention,’’ he said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.