Carriers invest in their brands as maelstrom of 2020 ends — Industry Voices: Moore

Jeff Moore Industry Voices

All three national carriers have launched brand-building efforts, and UScellular has refreshed its brand identity. 

Why now?

First came the pandemic, and then Sprint was acquired by T-Mobile. Carriers spent much of 2020 dealing with these hurricanes. Then, there was the iPhone 12 launch, followed by the holiday, and then came the Galaxy S21 launch. Carriers now have the time to focus on big picture issues. Vaccinations are giving hope.

UScellular: “America’s Locally Grown Wireless” 

“UScellular Celebrates its Community-First Approach with New Brand Campaign” was the headline of an April 12 press release. This brand modernization was launched in September with a new logo design. “The new logo design emphasizes the ‘US’ in UScellular to underscore the bond UScellular associates have with their customers and communities,” stated the company.  

AdAge on April 13 reported that “the country’s fourth-largest carrier today unveils a new masterbrand direction and accompanying ad campaign that seeks to position it as the premier local-first cell service provider in the U.S.”  The carrier has retained the services of its creative agency Droga5 and Accenture Interactive for the effort.

UScellular now refers to itself as “America’s Locally Grown Wireless,” and ad support for this has been heavy. In a new TV ad, a UScellular tower climber says that UScellular is “building a state-of-the-art network in places the other guys didn’t care to go.” A 60-second variant of the ad is here

AT&T launches “Connect &” campaign

AT&T on April 7 launched a new “Connect &” ad campaign, which is intended to illustrate how AT&T helps connect people. Visually, the ampersand from the AT&T name is front-and-center. This is an effort in branding, and there no offers pitched.

Five ads launched on April 7 and they are: “Connect & Learn,” “Connect & Protect,” “Connect & Serve,” “Connect & Play” and “Connect & Delight.”  Among the themes are home internet for gaming, FirstNet, blocking scam calls, connectivity for businesses, and internet for education. In the “Connect & Play” ad, for example, a grandfather and his granddaughter appear to be connected by an ampersand.

RELATED: Perfect storm of changes impacts wireless retail — Moore

AT&T has had multiple branding campaigns in recent years, including the “Just OK is not OK” campaign that kicked off in late 2019, as noted in December 2019 by AdWeek. AT&T in February 2018 announced its “More for your thing. That’s our thing” campaign. “AT&T ditches 'Rethink Possible' slogan for new 'Mobilizing Your World' push” was the headline of an April 2014 Fierce Wireless article.

Verizon uses the Oscars to tout connectivity amid the pandemic

Verizon had been quiet in terms of TV advertising during April. Then came the Oscars. After not being in the top 10 in weekly U.S. national TV advertising, per information from iSpot, Verizon has suddenly zoomed to the number one spot among all advertisers, with spending over the past week in excess of $20 million.

As seen on Verizon’s YouTube page, six Verizon ads were filmed specifically for the Oscars – each with “Oscars” in the ad title. The ads provide stories about how Verizon was able to provide crucial connectivity amid the pandemic. One couple operated a food truck, and a man was able to teach classes despite a cancer diagnosis.

“America’s most reliable network” was the claim seen at the end of each of the ads. This is not a new claim, but I think Verizon is trying to reinforce the necessity of reliable connectivity amid emergencies. There were no pitches of promotions in the ads.

T-Mobile reinforces its brand via an “un-carrier” move

T-Mobile made a branding move of its own in April, as detailed by Fierce Wireless on April 7. The carrier is not rebranding or changing its brand promise. Quite the opposite. 

T-Mobile launched its “un-carrier” brand promise in March 2013 in the aftermath of the federal rejection of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile. Each move has been intended to differentiate T-Mobile from other carriers by eliminating “pain points,” such as overages, high international roaming costs, limited data and taxes and fees. The new “5G for All” move has several components, but it is generally intended to make 5G and unlimited adoption easy, to improve rural connectivity and to provide more choices for internet service.

So, who wins?

My view is that T-Mobile is doing the best job of building brand equity. The “un-carrier” umbrella for making move after move to address carrier “pain points” has been executed with consistency, with most of the moves providing substantial change. T-Mobile’s attitude of feistiness against two incumbent giants has served it well. 

UScellular’s move is solid, because it focuses on a legitimate point of differentiation. The regional carrier has no presence in the “NFL cities,” but in many smaller markets and in rural areas it has outsized share due to its retail presence and network focus. Some of these areas are either not served by some of the national carriers or have a low level of priority for the national carriers.

As to the efforts from Verizon and AT&T, it is questionable whether they are too subtle for the average consumer.  ValueWalk in February reported an estimated value of AT&T’s brand at $99 billion, making it the ninth-most valuable brand in the U.S. Verizon’s brand had an estimated value of $98 billion, putting it in tenth place among U.S. brands.

And what about Dish Wireless?

The three national carriers’ networks are only getting better, and all three have thousands of stores and a presence at national retail. The gap in brand equity is another uphill battle the emerging carrier must face. 

Now that the maelstrom of the past 13 months is coming to an end, carriers are investing in their network — and their brands — in an effort to compete with each other, with the cable companies and with Dish Network.

Jeff Moore is Principal of Wave7 Research, a wireless research firm that covers U.S. postpaid, prepaid, and smartphone competition.  Jeff has 25 years of telecom industry experience, including 13 years of competitive intelligence work for Sprint. Follow him on Twitter @wave7jeff.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.