A History of Orange, before EE

Today, we remember Orange as one of the true pioneers of the early mobile telecommunication era. From their inception to their ingenuous branding, the company not only helped us communicate on the go, but advance advertising in huge ways too.

Here in the UK, the brand has been retired following a number of years slow integration with the EE brand, but that doesn’t mean we can forget all about its long and lustrous history. So, in this guide, we’re going to share with you the fantastic story which has brought Orange into the present day.

Orange before Orange

The company we now recognise as Orange began life right here in the UK under the name Microtel Communicatons Ltd. The year was 1990, and as a consortium formed by American owned Pactel Corporation, British Aerospace, Millicom and French company Mantra, MCL was a multinational and multilingual affair from the very start. However, that wasn’t to last for long.

British Aerospace, spotting the potential in the space, moved quickly to buy out their partners in the enterprise, taking control of the young company, though retaining the Microtel name.

In July 1991, Hutchison Whampoa (the current owners of Three) agreed a stock swap deal with BAe. As part of that deal, Whampoa would take a controlling stake (65%) in Microtel Communications. At this stage, Microtel had won a license to develop a ‘personal communications network’ in the UK, one of the very first dished out to a company.

Birth of a Brand

It was around this time that Orange set to work creating their revolutionary branding. Bold, innovative and entirely new, Microtel settled on the name Orange for their consumer facing business. In an era when telecommunications branding would never dream of being so opaque, Orange lit a path that has since been followed by the likes of O2, EE, Three and many more.

This new branding was created by an internal team within Microtel, headed by then marketing director Chris Moss, with support from Martin Keogh, Rob Furness and Ian Pond. Wolff Olins were tasked with designing the brand values and logo, whilst WCRS worked on that incredible, iconic slogan – The Future’s Bright, the Futures Orange.

Launch day

On the 28th of April, 1994, Orange launched an 1800MHz GSM network in the UK, alongside a nationwide advertising campaign which teased the brand. Growth was explosive, and by 1995 a holding company had been established under the name Orange plc, ending all trace of the Microtel brand and ending a great deal of confusion on Orange customer services.

Floated and sold

By April 1996 the company was considered large enough to float on the London Stock Exchange. Following the float, the company was majority owned by Whampoa (48.22%), with a smaller amount owned by BAe (21.1%). However, such was the demand for shares in the young company that Orange became the youngest ever company to enter the FTSE 100, valued at £2.4 billion in July 1996.

October 1999 would see the company purchased by German conglomerate Mannesmann AG for $33 billion, shortly before Mannessman was bought by Vodafone for $183 billion in February 2000. Vodafone, however, could not hold two mobile licenses, so sold Orange to France Telecom for £37 billion, a transaction completed in 2000. It would remain in the hands of France Telecom for a decade before the merger with T-Mobile.