A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.
To energize the troops at wireless carrier U.S. Cellular, president-CEO Mary Dillon is singing her heart out.
"You'll be satisfied, your calls will survive. Here's a number, call someone who cares," she croons in an internal company video, as country-styled Chicago singer Mr. Blotto accompanies on twangy guitar.
Up against quarter after quarter of declining net subscribers, the underdog national carrier -- and Ms. Dillon -- is singing the gospel of customer service to compete with mammoth ad spenders like AT&T and Verizon. Today marks the launch of U.S. Cellular's brand campaign "Hello Better," which will run into 2013.
"This is one tough industry, one which people trust about as much as a used car salesman, thanks to a few very big companies who shall remain nameless," Ms. Dillon said in the internal video. They don't remain nameless for long: Employees surrounding Ms. Dillon, the former global chief marketer for McDonald's, soon shout out: "AT&T!" "Verizon!" "Virgin!" "T-Mobile!" "Sprint!" U.S. Cellular declined to provide the video for publication.
The TV spots meant for public consumption, which will run in the 26 states where the Chicago-based company operates retail outlets, highlight the pain points in dealing with carriers today: dropped calls (U.S. Cellular claims it has the highest reception satisfaction in the category); restrictive contracts; and the red-tape involved in making upgrades. In three spots, a doofus salesman from "your old wireless carrier" approaches current U.S. Cellular customers and, unsuccessfully, tries to persuade them to switch back.
The focus on customer service is rare in the wireless industry, which markets heavily around device launches. U.S. Cellular is already at one disadvantage against the big guys: It doesn't carry Apple's iPhone, which is still driving new subscriptions at competitors. The carrier is releasing Samsung's hot device Galaxy SIII in step with others.
"Devices play a critical role in this category. ...You'll see us communicating around our devices, but we do feel like the carrier story is an important one," said U.S. Cellular Senior-VP Marketing and Chief Marketing Officer David Kimbell, who joined up in early 2011.
"While other carriers are going to focus on device story, we're looking at it more through the lens of how people live," Ms. Dillon later added.
The campaign also includes print, outdoor, public relations and digital efforts. Mr. Kimbell declined to provide budget specifics.
Measured-media spending at U.S. Cellular has declined during the past few years. In 2011, the company spent $95.5 million, compared with $98.3 million in 2010 and $109.3 million in 2009, according to Kantar Media. Current levels of spending are only a fraction of the spending of AT&T and Verizon, which have also cut spending in recent years but still dedicate at least $2 billion apiece to measured media across all their business units.
U.S. Cellular installed Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen as its new agency to start the year and Ketchum for PR months later. Starcom handled media for the campaign and Jay Advertising handles grassroots efforts.
Customer service has been a big focus since Ms. Dillon joined the company in 2010. Soon after, U.S. Cellular launched a points-based loyalty program that can result in free upgrades for customers.
In the internal video, Ms. Dillon asks U.S. Cellular 9,000 associates to showcase their singing skills on a website called "Care-eoke.com." It's basically a tryout for the next phase of the campaign: Employees will be selected to sing responses to disgruntled wireless customers via social media. The company will identify people airing their frustration with any carrier and associates will respond directly with song. (Since the campaign is just launching, we won't get a gander at those videos for a few weeks.)