When AT&T's VP-brand identity Gregg Heard talked about getting people to "love" AT&T at Ad Age's Digital Conference last year, there were a few scattered giggles. The idea that customers would feel affection for their wireless providers was apparently laughable to some in the audience.
But over the past year AT&T has found its way into more consumers' hearts. The secret? Its series of "It's Not Complicated" ads featuring comedic actor Beck Bennett discussing AT&T's mobile networks with groups of first-graders. The spots were created by BBDO offices in Atlanta and New York, and directed by Caviar's Jorma Taccone, best known as one-third of the Lonely Island comedy trio.
Since launching last November, the ads rank as some of the most-mentioned commercials on social media, according to analytics firm BlueFin Labs. Ace Metrix, a firm that measures ad effectiveness, said the commercials averaged a "likeability" score of 636, compared with an average of 577 for all commercials.
A significant portion of viewers had even deeper feelings. Bluefin Labs reported that 16% of the tweets in late January about "It's Not Complicated" ads included "love." Ace Metrix found that 10% of the people interviewed about the campaign's "Jokes" ad also used "love."
"The noise around this campaign is like none we've ever had," said Esther Lee, AT&T's senior VP-brand marketing. "Employees have said, 'It makes me proud to wear an AT&T T-shirt.'"
Cute commercials can only take a brand so far, though. AT&T Mobility CMO David Christopher said advertising is just one of three important AT&T marketing pillars. The others are the devices it supports and the strength of its network.
Device-wise, AT&T has continued to strike exclusive deals for new products. AT&T is currently the only carrier to offer Motorola Mobility's heavily anticipated Moto X in all of its color combinations, for example.
On the network front, AT&T was ranked as the fastest LTE provider in the U.S. by PC Magazine and wireless network research firm Sensorly. The honor has helped to reverse negative perceptions about the company's network, according to Ms. Lee.
Despite its successes, AT&T has had trouble overcoming the cruel fact that consumers are hard-pressed to switch mobile providers. Its share of U.S. mobile subscribers stood at 27.2% in May, according to comScore, flat from a year earlier. When it came to smartphone sales in the U.S., AT&T was able to hold its market share steady at 26% in the second quarter, while rivals Verizon and Sprint lost ground, according to IDC.
AT&T's marketing will have to continue clicking on all fronts as it chases current market leader Verizon, widely considered the carrier with the most robust network. (While PC Magazine labeled AT&T's network the fastest, Verizon's was dubbed the most reliable.) If Verizon wasn't enough competition, the rebranded T-Mobile has launched an aggressive campaign targeting AT&T.
Mr. Christopher said AT&T's focus won't be on fending off contender brands, but extending wireless capabilities beyond mobile devices.
"You have to start thinking about the industry in broader terms," Mr. Christopher said. "How do you bring wireless capability to everything? How do you wirelessly enable your house, your car, your clothes?" Being well-loved is a good start toward being invited into consumers' homes.