4G: What if the customer doesn't understand your product?

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Mobile marketers face a quandary today, as they roll out 4G (fourth-generation) and LTE (long-term evolution) networks. A Yankee Group survey shows:
  • Only 42% of Americans have heard the term 4G and understand what it means.
  • 7% have never heard the term 4G.
  • More than half (51%) have heard of 4G but don't understand it.

Prospective buyers want a simple answer to this question: 4G? What's in it for me?

Instead, they're getting a sales job. And it's all about prestige.

More Gs = more prestige

Instead of building understanding, marketers are playing the prestige card. More Gs mean more prestige, whether or not you understand Gs. The noise level around Gs is so high that it's been hard to sort out what's really happening in the U.S. mobile market. Here's a quick look in the rearview mirror:

  • Sprint built the first U.S. LTE network, but not enough LTE phones were available to capitalize on its "speed to market" advantage.
  • T-Mobile advertised "4G speeds." Industry experts went crazy because T-Mobile has a 3.5G network, not 4G.
  • Although challenged, T-Mobile's ad claim was upheld.
  • Verizon and AT&T started rolling out new LTE networks quickly.
  • Today, less than 10% of Americans have a 4G phone.
  • The rumor mill says, Verizon and AT&T will market a 4G iPad soon. That launch could mark the turning point to bring 4G into the mainstream.

Wonder why consumers are confused by 4G?

As consumers, we want to know that a product solves our problems, whether or not we understand how the product works.

Before the mobile Internet, we would encounter new communication technologies at work and bring them home. For most of us, fax machines, speakerphones, email, pagers, cell phones and high-speed Internet service popped up first at work. We got used to new technologies at work, then we brought them home.

Now we bring technology from home to work, whether we understand it or not. As employees, we brought our iPads and iPhones to work. So the IT department had to figure out how to connect us with the company network securely.

Prestige goes beyond the number of Gs. Why do we want the latest-model iPhones and iPads? Why is Apple one of the most valuable companies on the planet?

Because people who own the newest iPhone 4S feel that the phone says something about them. The prestige of owning a high-end phone makes them feel important and recognized as an achiever even though the iPhone 4S is a 3G phone, not a 4G phone. We're still waiting for a 4G iPhone. Prestige can trump understanding.

Marketers don't necessarily need buyers to understand in order to make a sale. But they do need to fascinate buyers with a dimension such as prestige, as Sally Hogshead explains in her excellent book "Fascinate."

You have to wonder: How long will it be until some marketer claims to have 5G?

Still, people want to understand.

No wonder that the comedians on "Saturday Night Live" are mocking mobile marketing, particularly 4G. Even The Wall Street Journal and the twitterverse have joined in.

What's not funny is that Congress may legislate new requirements that 4G be explained better to consumers.

It's time for the industry to explain, simply: What is 4G and what's in it for me?

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