Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Phone Wars

Laura Ries insight on the AT & T vs Verizon Battle we've been witnessing:

Verizon and its Atomic Bomb

Marketing wars are fought with lots of words,
but wars are won when you combine your words with a visual.

We have seen several epic marketing wars: The Cola War of Coke vs. Pepsi, The Beer War of Budweiser vs. Miller, The Mouthwash War of Listerine vs. Scope and The Battery War of Duracell vs. Energizer. But they all fail in comparison to the money and firepower currently being expended in the Cellphone War between AT&T and arch-rival Verizon Wireless.

Last year AT&T and Verizon Wireless spent a combined $4 billion in advertising to blast consumers with 615,000 television commercials. Yet, despite the incredible sums spent and the enormous volume flooding the airways, most consumers are still confused.

After all that money, the only thing that really stuck in the mind was that AT&T had the iPhone and Verizon did not. And this was accomplished not with AT&T’s advertising but with Apple’s brilliant PR launch of the iPhone. And to make matters worse, many iPhone users have been vocally complaining about AT&T’s poor service.

The U.S. wireless market is estimated at $150 billion dollars and is predicted to grow much higher as more consumers ditch landlines and sign up for more expensive cellphone data plans. So despite the lack of success with the carriers’ advertising messages in getting into the minds of consumers, we are likely to see even more money spent this year by both AT&T and Verizon.

The recent campaigns have done nothing but contribute to a scorched-earth policy that does little to enhance either brand. When you fight a war with lots of words and lots of noise, you tend to make little progress.

Verizon are locked in a heated battle for domination. Currently, Verizon is No.1 with 89 million customers compared with 81 million for AT&T as of June 2009. Verizon also leads in revenue with $58.6 billion vs. $49.3 billion for AT&T in 2008, the most recent complete year figures.

Verizon may be slightly ahead but it needs the ultimate weapon. The ultimate weapon is a verbal message combined with a visual. Wars are won when you can combine your words with a simple visual. It is this combination that gets into the mind and cuts through the clutter.

AT&T’s strategy has mostly been about riding the luck of having an exclusive on the hot new phone on the market. Verizon has tried to fight back by promoting one phone after another, all positioned as “iPhone killers.” Unfortunately, none have done much killing.


But Verizon did have an interesting tagline at the bottom of its ads: “Switch to America’s Largest and Most Reliable 3G Network.” Powerful, but I doubt many people noticed it or thought much about it. Why? Because these were just tiny words on a page. Words alone are not enough. Verizon needed a visual to focus the entire campaign on.

Which is why Verizon created an atomic bomb and the ultimate weapon when it combined those words with a visual. A bomb that woke up consumers and actually made them listen to and remember some of that $4 billion in advertising.

Verizon  map2_edited-1

The visual was the map. The red Verizon map vs. the blue AT&T map that showed just how much larger Verizon’s coverage really was. The verbal was "America's Largest and Most Reliable 3G Network with 5x more 3G coverage.”

You know the campaign was effective because AT&T took Verizon to federal court over the ads. AT&T claimed the ads were misleading because the 3G coverage map used in the Verizon ads inaccurately gives the impression that there are vast areas of the country where AT&T customers can’t get any cellphone service.

A federal judge did agree that some viewers might get that wrong impression and that the ads were “sneaky” on Verizon’s part. But the judge in the end ruled that the ads were not strictly speaking “misleading” and therefore not illegal.

After losing the battle in court, AT&T moved the battle back to the airwaves. In November, AT&T enlisted actor Luke Wilson to personify AT&T and defend itself against the map.


The Luke Wilson ads have been running non-stop. Without a powerful idea AT&T has had to overspend the competition with its messages in an attempt to once again confuse consumers. If you can’t beat them, drown them out with noise.

What makes Verizon’s verbal and visual leadership combination so impactful is that it reinforces what consumers commonly believe about each brand. Verizon has the better network and is more reliable. Verizon backs this up with massive spending on its network infrastructure. The spending gets lots of PR, and not all totally positive since the spending has cut into earnings.

AT&T, on the other hand, is perceived to be a network overloaded with iPhone hogs, which has generated numerous complains of unreliability. AT&T with a name that reeks of old technology AT&T is in a bind. Is it too late to go back to Cingular?

With its map Verizon has clearly won this battle, but the war is far from over. Neither brand is close to claiming “mission accomplished.” But my money is on Verizon. If they can keep hammering the idea of leadership and reliability with strong visuals the war will soon be over and I can go back to watching television without all the Cellphone War commercials interrupting.

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