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IPhone Was a 'Steroid' for AT&T's Rebranding Effort

Telecom's Wendy Clark Said Apple's Cachet Helped Skew Brand Younger

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PHOENIX (AdAge.com) -- AT&T has clearly benefited from the sale of 1 million iPhones since June: The launch of the Apple phone has given the telecom the lift its brand needed following its decision to drop the Cingular Wireless name and has helped show the world phone company was not your grandparent's AT&T.
Wendy Clark
Wendy Clark Credit: Rohanna Mertens

"The iPhone was a phenomenal success -- it acted as a steroid for our rebranding and exceeded our expectations," Wendy Clark, VP-advertising, AT&T, said a morning session at the Association of National Advertisers conference at the Arizona Biltmore here. (See video excerpts.)

'Accelerated' strategy
Ms. Clark said that in early May AT&T decided to "accelerate" its brand makeover with an iPhone strategy. The payoff, she said, was 12,000 print and broadcast stories with some 3 billion impressions. She also said half of the news coverage about the company in the second quarter was iPhone-related, further fostering the company's younger image.

Ms. Clark's presentation was kicked off with a humorous clip from the Colbert Report that poked fun of the changes AT&T has gone through since the breakup of the old Ma Bell into regional phone companies, and the rollup of those "Baby Bells" back into the new AT&T.

Those changes occured under former Southwestern Bell Chairman Ed Whitacre. The telecom giant had just completed its $2 billion rebranding campaign from SBC to the "new" AT&T in January 2006 (or AT&T 1.0 as it was dubbed in-house) when, 90 days later, the company announced the purchase of BellSouth. With that purchase, AT&T took total control of Cingular Wireless, forcing a second rebranding effort. Previously, SBS owned 60% of Cingular and BellSouth the remaining 40%. The decision to drop the younger-skewing Cingular brand in favor of the stodgier AT&T moniker drew some criticism from branding experts.

Two kinds of brands
In working on AT&T's initial reiteration in January 2006, AT&T's research found there are two kinds of brands: enabling brands such as FedEx, and affinity brands, those such as Nike that enhance a person's self-worth. AT&T wanted to be about both, she said. In addition to being an enabling brand, "we could be an iconic brand," she said. Research found the youth market was neutral about the AT&T brand, and therefore the company had an opportunity to build out a new reference point.

Just six months after the launch of that $2 billion ad campaign, awareness of the merger had doubled and unaided band awareness of the brand has tripled. "In the category of being the most preferred communications brand, we exceeded all of our competition."

Need management's support
Ms. Clark also reminded the audience of how important it is for marketers to have the support of management. She said that when she first laid out plans for the first rebranding campaign, Mr. Whitacre, the mastermind behind the rebirth of AT&T who eventually become its chairman, responded: "That's not enough." "We have one chance to do this and we have to this well," she quoted Mr. Whitacre as saying.

Her advice for marketers today: Technology may enable marketers to do more communicating with customers, but don't forget to "make the conversation human."
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