Sprint Claims 'First' Title With Launch of 4G Phone

No. 3 Carrier Tries for Comeback With Evo on High-Speed Network

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Third-place wireless carrier Sprint is hoping for a comeback with the launch tonight of Evo, the first 4G smartphone, which runs off its high-speed network.

No. 1 carrier Verizon and No. 2 AT&T support 3G data. While those carriers are still developing new high-speed networks, Sprint 4G is already available and could stand to bolster the brand that has suffered from years of technical and customer service problems.

Sprint 4G
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Print ad for the Evo
The Evo spot from Sprint agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, kicks off marketing for the handset tonight in prime time. The first commercial, "Firsts," will be a significant launch for the carrier and positions Evo (an Android device from handset manufacturer HTC) as the latest technological first along the spectrum of previous innovation landmarks, starting from the wheel through the space shuttle and mobile phones. The integrated campaign also includes national print across newspapers and magazines; outdoor; online; and experiential components. Sprint would not disclose media spending. Its media agency is Mindshare. In the tradition of recent blockbuster launches for Droid and Palm handsets, the Evo spot is more of a branding commercial than a product demonstration, a strategy Apple notably utilized for launching the iPhone. This first spot focuses on Sprint's heritage of firsts -- for example, it was the first to offer digital landline service -- rather than phone features or the network's speed, but commercials describing Evo features will launch in coming weeks.

"To really differentiate from every other product launch out there, we had to emphasize the strategy of firsts," said Mike Goff, Sprint's VP-corporate marketing.

Great expectations
As the only U.S. carrier in the market offering 4G, Evo could revive Sprint, which has picked up slightly after years of steady decline. Sprint's first-quarter revenue was down, but showed improvement over past quarters. Sprint also lost fewer subscribers last quarter, marking its best subscriber results since late 2007.

In the first quarter, Sprint had more than 47 million subscribers vs. Verizon's 92 million and AT&T's 86 million, according to the carriers. The two leaders added subscribers during the first months of this year, while Sprint lost a small fraction. Its average churn rate is also double that of the market leaders.

The company has been marketing its high-speed network with a "What can you do with 4G?" campaign over the last few months, primarily around its Wi-Fi hotspot device. That campaign laid the foundation for Evo, said Mr. Goff, and that's why the carrier can lead this handset launch with a brand-centric campaign, rather than one that explains the benefits of a faster network. The 4G network is currently available in 33 markets, including Chicago, Philadelphia and Houston. It's expecting to come to New York and San Francisco later this year.

Sprint's campaign will also support a social-media component wherein users can post their firsts on the Evo phone to social networks. Users will earn Foursquare-like badges for completing firsts on the phone, from the first person to purchase to being the first to upload a video of a baby's first steps.

"Badges take advantage of the notion that Foursquare has recently developed," said Rob Smith, group account director and associate partner for Goodby. "It's not the same exactly, but it ties into that mindset that people like to be somewhere first. ... It returns Sprint to a tech leadership position, and we now have the technology and device to back it up."

The last major smartphone launch on the Sprint network was for Palm, which Hewlett Packard has since purchased, after the company reported dismal earnings and sales that some say were due to poor marketing, timing and distribution. Palm and its then agency Modernista led communications for that device, while Sprint will lead for Evo.

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