Cingular believes in self

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A disabled artist who paints with a brush attached to his head, burly football players attempting classical ballet moves and people soaring through the air doing jumping jacks don't have much to do with a wireless service. But they have everything to do with self-expression, at least according to Cingular Wireless, which has put a new spin on wireless marketing with a unique brand proposition that's beginning to take root.

As the second-largest wireless service provider in the U.S. with 20 million customers, Cingular Wireless, like rival Verizon Wireless, was the product of a merger and as such, faces the challenge of crafting a brand from scratch. Cingular Wireless was formed by the fall 2000 merger of SBC Communications, which owns 60%, and BellSouth Corp., which controls the rest. It has had to incorporate 11 regional brands under its umbrella, integrate their billing systems and unify retail-store identities. Post-merger Cingular has some 15,000 retail stores and offers service to 42 of the top 50 markets in the U.S.

While Cingular's Super Bowl advertising debut left some industry observers cold and consumers perplexed, the company said the campaign by Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, is beginning to resonate. BBDO South, Atlanta, handles retail and promotional advertising.

"We've been very, very pleased at the awareness levels, at the takeaway that Cingular is fun, creative and expressive," said Virginia Vann, the company's chief marketing officer. "Everybody understands that Cingular is self-expression." Brand awareness began to coalesce three months after the launch campaign, Ms. Vann said.

"It's a well-conceived brand identity and it's well positioned to succeed," said Keith Mallinson, exec VP, Yankee Group, a telecommunications consultancy. Mr. Mallinson believes Cingular's positioning is refreshing in a category where brands are struggling for differentiation. The lifestyle positioning is "bold and you've got to be bold because you have these 11 disparate things to pull together," he added, referring to the merger. The name Cingular is a smart, internal rallying cry as well, he said.

Bold or not, Cingular still must cobble together a legitimate enterprise from a patchwork of different networks, operating systems and processes. Those divergent systems can make it challenging to roll out national offers. In the months since Cingular began national advertising, the company has simplified its offers and pricing to reflect local, regional and national calling plans, Ms. Vann said. It's also introduced downloadable ring tones for consumers to customize their phones and steadily introduced wireless data products including short message service.

As wireless voice service begins to resemble wire line long-distance service, differentiating brands on attributes other than price is critical. "The wireless business is becoming more of a parity kind of business; it's hard to sustain a competitive advantage on price and geography these days," Ms. Vann said. All the more reason, she adds, for Cingular to continue to streamline offers and dangle individualized options.

"Everything we do has to pass our brand filter. Our challenge is to always be working to differentiate, whether new products and services or new pricing," Ms. Vann said, adding, "In this kind of environment, brand becomes more and more important." Cingular's brand filter, not surprisingly, equals self-expression.

This fall, a new wave of brand advertising will articulate how Cingular's services remove barriers to enable self-expression.

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