Ladies and Gentlemen, your attention, please! In this corner, weighing in at 85 million subscribers, we have the current mobile phone champion, Verizon “Can you hear me now?” Wireless! And in this corner, we have the challenger, topping the scales with 77 million customers and wearing the Apple-colored trunks, AT&T!
In the fight for market share in the still-growing wireless/mobile industry, there are now two heavyweights left standing to duke it out for your two-year contract. AT&T and Verizon currently control about 60% of the market and have dropped their gloves in a flurry of marketing campaigns to hold onto their customers and to become the brand of choice for the remaining 40%.
Over the last 18 months, AT&T has cut into Verizon’s lead with a huge push on their 3G coverage, anchored by their exclusive deal to sell iPhones. Verizon upped the ante by naming names with their recent “There’s a map for that” campaign. Any time a leading brand starts calling out their competition, even mimicking one of “their” slogans (‘There’s an app for that” is really an Apple/iPhone line) you know they’re feeling the pressure to compete.
The battle for your $50/month
So Verizon went to the core of their brand strength, which is reliable coverage, and showed map graphics that indicate about five times more 3G coverage than AT&T. Within two weeks, AT&T counterpunched with a campaign featuring actor Luke Wilson flipping postcards all over a room-sized map of their own and claiming AT&T “covers 97% of all Americans.” In case you didn’t notice, 3G coverage is not being mentioned in these AT&T spots, thus the seemingly conflicting claims are both essentially true. AT&T has also added several spots that show their 3G system (where available) is faster than Verizon’s, adding additional frenzy to the fight.
Verizon has identified AT&T’s weakness and is pounding away at it with all they’ve got. But in the course of doing so, they are taking one of the great risks in marketing, which is to name your competition and tear them down. To say this never works is an overstatement, but not far from it. Yes, the Pepsi Challenge of 25 years ago ultimately caused Coke to blink and introduce New Coke. It staggered the cola champ, but not for long. Currently, Apple’s Mac commercials attack Microsoft relentlessly, but only refer to them generically as “PC.” (They did name Vista for a time, but only after it was mortally wounded.)
There are two problems with attacking the competition by name. First, much of the time we are barely paying attention to advertising. Ad awareness studies have shown that negative messages often are missed while the brand names are not, so attack ads can end up reinforcing a competitor’s brand as well. Secondly, Americans just don’t respond well to negativity in advertising (political ads excluded). Citing the negatives of a competitor doesn’t necessarily translate to a positive for the attacking brand, and is often perceived as unseemly or even desperate.
Of course, the heart and soul of AT&T’s growth has been their exclusive contract to sell Apple’s iPhone product. While a dozen cell phone brands were making incremental gains in capabilities, iPhone brought a quantum leap in speed, functions, and applications. (What the heck, here’s a free iPod as well.) All of which is completely expected from the Apple brand and the iEverything collection of products that create a powerful brand experience. “There’s an app for that,” has become a household phrase that reinforces the ubiquity of the iPhone every time it’s uttered, even in jest.
But one day soon, AT&T’s exclusive hold is probably going to end.
Losing a partner brand
Industry experts are predicting that Apple could double U.S. sales by eventually offering their phone through other carriers as they have in some countries. That doesn’t mean Verizon will be a likely carrier, however, since their system is based on different technology. T-Mobile is compatible and could possibly make a big move with an iPhone contract. All of which makes Verizon’s current push more understandable. If they can slow AT&T down for now, the loss of iPhone exclusivity in the near future might be all they need to widen their lead again.
So for now, these two brand brothers of the same mother are giving all they’ve got to win the battle for your mobile telephone/texting/browsing/apping/MP3ing. Expect the jabs to keep flying. Expect a creative punch or two that we haven’t seen yet. And, ultimately, expect the real winners to be the customer as both sides find ways to add value to their wireless brand experience.