Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

War of the Wireless

How the telco giants, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, are battling it out on the marketing front.
Updated 19 Jul, 2017 03:08pm

The mornings on Madison Avenue in New York have a surrealistic urgency about them. Dressed impeccably, hundreds walk this street every day. Their movement overtly synchronised, as if choreographed for a fashion show. Almost all of them with the same frown are intensely lost in thought. Many of them, if not all, have one thought revolving in their heads, everyday every morning: “when will I bag a wireless account?”

Strange you might think, but not if you are familiar with geography and advertising, because Madison Avenue has always been metonymous with the advertising industry and with an estimated media spend of around $500 million, wireless also known as the telco industry, is what many ‘Mad Men’ dream of every day – every morning. The wireless industry boasts one of the highest spending in marketing. A key reason being when it comes to battle of the brands, the wireless industry leads the arena for the fiercest rivalries in advertising. Not to mention another reason for its aggressiveness is that, unlike other industries, the ROI in wireless can almost be measured in real time. Innovation in pricing, product or promotion usually has an immediate effect, giving little time to react.

With over 400 million subscribers the wireless market in USA is more than the population of many countries. Verizon leads the pack with over 140 million subscribers, followed by AT&T with over 130 million and T-Mobile bridging the gap with around 70 million. The bitter rivalry created through the challenger platform between Verizon and T-Mobile is how the audience sees the wireless industry in the USA. AT&T has not only been sporadic, but also almost nonchalant in its advertising; it seems less interested in churning out advertising and more interested in acquisitions, hence audiences ignore AT&T as competition and are accustomed to Verizon and T-Mobile in the ring (pun intended). T-Mobile has positioned itself as the challenger brand (surprise, surprise), gradually but steadily adding to its subscriber base. T-Mobile this year went for the jugular with the biggest advertising assault in recent times by buying three minutes of airtime in the Super Bowl. For those who are not aware, a 30-second spot during Super Bowl costs about $5 million. Multiply that by six and you have the annual advertising budget of many top brands. Team T-Mobile in Super Bowl was led by Justin Bieber and included Martha Stewart, Snoop Dogg and Kristen Schaal; the objective was to sell its unlimited data plan and exploit the pain caused by Verizon billing.

Apparently the agency was given a one-line brief, “you have enough money to spend” or perhaps that is exactly what the agency deciphered. The result was obvious, to say the least; it seemed more like a well-executed high-school assignment. This perhaps was the pitch; “Let’s divide everyone using mobile into four demographics, make a series of ads casting the celebrities they like and place them in a funny situation”. PS “We need viral content, so let’s do a really sleazy one based on sex”.

It was in my opinion the worst use of millions and the worst possible campaign for 2017. There was no strategy except to make a 30-second sketch of celebrities who catered to different audiences – and then just plug-in T-Mobile in the story. There is no soul, or in technical terms a brand DNA. The simple exercise of removing T-Mobile and planting any brand in the campaign can prove this hypothesis. Research conducted by YouGov BrandIndex one month after the campaign measured the ‘Buzz’ (what consumers have heard about brands), WOM (how much respondents have said about brands) and Purchase Consideration, and came up with a Top 10 list. On Buzz, T-Mobile was 9th, 10th on WOM and nowhere on Purchase Consideration.

While ad agencies still tango around how to calculate the ROI of a campaign, my premise is simple. If you spend over $50 million on a single campaign, and it does not have a significant effect on the purchase decision, you are doing something wrong. Or you have a really good sales team (aka account management team).

The Verizon response came within a month.

‘Unlimited’(data packages) finally got a network it deserved (pun intended) because of two reasons. One, Verizon was being attacked vehemently by T-Mobile with its Unlimited Data and was suffering massive losses in numbers. In 2016, T-Mobile added 3.3 million customers to the most lucrative segment in the industry – post-paid. Compared to that Verizon roped in 2.3 million which is almost half of what they added in 2015. Two, for Verizon to go Unlimited is the appointment of a new CEO. A man who figured out the obvious – the importance of Unlimited in this streaming age of everything video.

In an industry dominated by ‘price-packaging’ and technological advancements, it is but natural that the Unlimited plan should be truly unlimited.

So what next? This is where you come in. Your chance to show the world that you don’t just have the insights; you also have the foresight as a marketer. Predict the next move of T-Mobile, Verizon or the wireless industry and if your prophecy is right, we will feature you in our next blog. Comment here!