ANA Annual Meeting

AT&T's Esther Lee on Marketing Out of the Telecom Box

Looking for Consumer Love, the Company Abandoned the Hard Sell in Favor of Making Connections

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At first blush, Esther Lee seemed to have a happy conundrum.

Esther Lee
Esther Lee
AT&T's logo and brand has "universal recognition," on the order of McDonald's Golden Arches, she told audiences at the Association of National Advertisers Masters of Marketing Conference. But while the brand was very well known, it was not as well loved as AT&T had hoped.

The path that AT&T took to raise that regard involved identifying that the business it was in was not telecom, but helping consumers connect and making products that help them live their lives better. "Our grand platform for the last year and a half," she said "is relentless innovation for human progress."

Ms. Lee, senior VP-brand marketing and advertising at AT&T, described at length a scenario she called "Molly's Day," in which a mom uses AT&T products all day long to find a lost dog, get to the airport, contact her child's school, have medical records sent, turn on her house lights automatically and more.

AT&T's strategy is to convey how its brand is a place where consumers' needs are addressed and one that allows consumers "digital intimacy," Ms. Lee said, like video-chat bringing families together, and "digital kinship" allowing them to interact together by doing things like playing games. Its' also looking to find new products to connect with consumers by investing in entrepreneurial companies and via The Foundry, a think-lab of sorts with developers and technology providers in Plano Texas, Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley. "We are not using our brands [only] as a way to sell product, but also as a way to activate our company vision."

That vision -- that AT&T is in the connection business rather than the tech business -- led to its "Rethink Possible" campaign executed by BBDO and Interbrand.

Ms. Lee said that since its launch, the company has seen good product reviews and churn is at or near record low levels. Still, we "have work to do," she said, noting that the company still scores in the 5-7.5 range among all carriers on a scale of 10 when it comes to consumers believing it delivers a good experience. One of the ways of building its brand is with community service ads against texting and driving.

Of course, though, AT&T is still also in the business of selling. When asked by ANA-President CEO Bob Liodice what one takeaway she would leave with the audience, Ms. Lee said: "Go buy the iPhone from AT&T."

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