iPhone 6 Hits Shelves, and Carriers Race to Mine Gold

As Apple Loosens Grip on Ad Reins, Operators Push Discounts

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The iPhone 6 goes on sale in stores Friday.
The iPhone 6 goes on sale in stores Friday.

When T-Mobile's stores shut for the night on Thursday, employees frantically stripped down a host of recent ads at all 3,000-plus outlets nationwide. By Friday morning, fresh creative work was up promoting the all-important devices just hitting the shelves: Apple's latest iPhones.

T-Mobile was the last large U.S. operator to start carrying the iPhone, which it only began supporting in March 2013, shortly after the firm unfurled its "Uncarrier" branding. But Peter DeLuca, VP-brand marketing and advertising for T-Mobile, has high hopes for the new iPhone 6 and larger iPhone 6 Plus, calling it the "first built-from-the ground" iPhone for the operator.

"There's going to be a lot of people going to stores on Friday," he predicted.

That's a safe bet. In the two days following the iPhone 6 debut last week, each of its three larger rivals -- Verizon, AT&T and Sprint -- announced new discounts for the upcoming device. This happens with each iPhone update, as the carriers lean on the top-selling smartphone to line balance sheets.

But this time around, the stakes are even higher. By virtue of the bigger screens consumers have turned out to covet, Apple's new smartphones are set to prompt a massive upgrade cycle. The standard purchasing track, the two-year contract, is now withering away amid a carrier pricing battle for customers. And Apple is loosening its grip on the carriers' marketing reins.

Typically, Apple requires operators to hold on their iPhone-specific ads until well after Apple releases its own. Before Friday, however, Apple allowed carriers to run social media promotions.

Apple is also permitting them to come out of the gate with them on broader campaigns: T-Mobile is planning to run televised spots for the iPhone as early as this weekend; Verizon and Sprint will as well, according to executives close to the companies. AT&T, the iPhone's first carrier, is likely to follow suit.

Representatives from AT&T, Verizon and Sprint declined to comment.

Verizon and AT&T, the largest operators, both introduced offers where subscribers can trade in old iPhones, with AT&T -- the original iPhone carrier -- leaning heavily on its contract-less Next plan.

The smaller two latecomers to the iPhone, are still primarily focused on letting consumers know that they offer the device. T-Mobile will likely tout its iPhone test drive program as well as its status as the sole carrier offering WiFi calling, a new iPhone feature. (In the past week, AT&T and Verizon both announced they would soon offer the option.) For Sprint, which is undertaking a corporate overhaul and agency revamp under its new CEO, Marcelo Claure, the iPhone is the crux.

On the first day of his job, Mr. Claure flew to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., a conciliatory gesture to strengthen the carrier's relationship with Apple.

"Looks like Sprint will be pushing the hardest," Walter Piecyk, an analyst with BTIG, wrote in the email. "AT&T has the most to lose."

For all the carriers, however, the marketing mantra will center on data. T-Mobile introduced its new slogan, "Data Strong," in June; at Sprint, Mr. Claure is reportedly further emphasizing the operator's unlimited-data offering. AT&T and Verizon, which have stronger networks, are expected to continue to focus on their plumbing.

Mobile data packages are a growing line item for operators, as consumers eat up streaming and video. And Apple is helping out this time: Its newest iPhones both feature larger screens, which tend to correlate with higher data usage. Research firm NPD estimates that larger screen "phablets" use 44% more data than their smaller counterparts.

Even though it bowed to consumer trends with larger phones, and is warming to carrier partnerships, Apple remains Apple. It still wields atypical control.

For any ad that shows the Apple logo, for example, Apple's CMO Phil Schiller has full veto power, according to several marketing executives who work with carriers. He looks over -- and can nix -- scripts, production and final spots for carrier iPhone marketing.

Before last week, few at the carriers had seen the new smartphones. Fewer had touched them. That left them and their agency partners with precious little time to assemble a case for why their offering is superior to the others.

"You don't know when the launch date is. You don't anything," said Mr. DeLuca. "That's how they play. And we respect that."

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