Verizon's Brand Narrative Trumps AT&T's Brand Promises

Drop the Feel-Good Imagery, Just Tell the Story of a Product That Works

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The latest results are incontrovertible: Verizon signed nearly 10 times as many new customers last quarter as AT&T, further solidifying its lead as America's top wireless services provider. We should look at those results as evidence, if not outright proof, that the days of making vague, feel-good brand promises are over. The Verizon brand has no great benefit attached to it save one: It works.

AT&T is a very different animal. It has spent many millions telling consumers about the enormity of its presence in markets across the country. Countless ads chocked full of soaring beautiful imagery have delivered textbook-correct brand promises of better, further and more. It redesigned its logo in 2005 to promote all the great connotations it was attaching to its brand, and even hired the rock band Oasis to record seconds of a musical snippet to help promote it.

But take out the benefits of having won exclusive distribution rights for the first few iPhones and it's hard to find any tangible results for its branding. In fact, the company blamed its latest poor sign-up numbers on consumers waiting for the iPhone 5. Its latest earnings report touted all of its synergies and what-have-you, but its slow customer growth evidences an underlying functional vacuum at its core (as do, I'd wager, its customer-abandonment numbers).

Verizon has pursued an alternative strategy, basing its brand not on the miracles of fantasy brought to the marketing department by its agencies, but instead on communicating its operational performance. Customer service that is empowered to fix problems and technology for call quality that precludes them in the first place. New pricing bundles for data across devices that could be sold in the take-it-or-leave-it way that Apple sells its products. When stuff works, you can charge a premium and people will happily pay it.

AT&T's marketing strategy? To attack Verizon's claims, instead of coming up with better, even more truthful ones. Question its math. Debate its claims. Propagate its own version of the "I'm a PC" response, contrasting it to its competition instead of finding the benefits it can legitimately claim beyond vague, high-concept branding attributes on which its offering is based.

If this contrast isn't a wake-up call to all brand marketers, I'm not sure what could shake us from our dreams of power and authority. I can't even remember Verizon's latest creative, though those spots a while ago of the geeky service guy and then the coverage maps lit bright red are still memorable for coming across as truthful, not just as great ads.

Brand narratives trump brand promises, especially in higher-touch product and services categories that give customers frequent opportunities to discover the truths of their experiences. The Internet makes those narratives unavoidable anyway, so AT&T should look within and come up with foundational truths on which to base its branding. We all should.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and co-author of "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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