Wireless players become medium

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Three power players-Verizon Wireless' John Stratten, Sprint Corp.'s Tim Kelly and Cingular Wireless' Marc Lefar-are leading their companies from marketer to medium. The cell phone is transforming into what's being dubbed the "third screen," providing information and entertainment, along with the TV and PC monitor.

"The third screen is in fact a reality," says Mr. Kelly, senior VP-consumer solutions, marketing, strategic planning, business development and product realization at Sprint Consumer Solutions. Already, Mr. Kelly says, Sprint has begun to view itself as an aggregator of content akin to a cable TV company.

"We are very focused on the content customers want," he says, pointing out that cell phones have the potential to become a mobile TV device.

"It's the beginning of a new era," says Glenice Maclellan, VP-messaging services at AT&T Wireless Mobile Multimedia Services.

At the leading edge of this new era will be carriers like Sprint, Cingular and Verizon. The wireless carriers-some of them offshoots of major landline telcoms-have already stolen the marketing spotlight by unleashing ad blitzes worth about $5 billion a year to win subscribers.

"Wireless provides a tremendous reach vehicle," says Mr. Lefar, chief marketing officer at Cingular, adding, "It's a very unique content distribution vehicle and the next big marketing tool."

Text messaging is leading the new revolution. AT&T Wireless' Ms. Maclellan served as a point person on one of the biggest package-goods trials involving text messaging. In the McDonald's Corp. promotion, 250 million bags for takeout orders were handed out during the Summer Olympics with a text messaging trivia contest.

Cingular has major text-messaging deals in the works with Procter & Gamble Co. and Coca-Cola Co., Mr. Lefar says.

a $5 billion medium

Such efforts turn wireless communications into a marketing medium. The amount of money companies spend on mobile phones as a marketing medium in the U.S. is expected to go from less than $1 billion this year to an estimated $5 billion in 2005, says Peter Fuller, executive director of the Mobile Marketing Association. "When big brands get involved, it's definitely a turning point," he notes.

Mr. Fuller says messaging codes will be as ubiquitous as Web addresses on shopping bags during the dot-com boom. Integrated marketing programs will be considered lacking if they fail to include a text messaging element starting as early as 2005, he says.

Beyond text messaging, some of the world's most powerful brands are eyeing the mobile phone as a branding weapon. In the mobile sector, Sprint offers its services as a host for other wireless brands. Already, Virgin Mobile operates through Sprint's facilities. AT&T Corp. has announced plans to start a new wireless offering under a similar arrangement with Sprint. That effort conceivably could give the AT&T brand a second life in wireless.