Sprint Kills Off the Framily Plan, but May Keep the Frobinsons Around

New Pricing Plan Puts Fate of Off-Beat Ad Campaign Up In the Air

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The Frobinsons
The Frobinsons

After five months, the term that grew synonymous with the carrier's brand is dead.

Earlier this week the wireless carrier announced a discounted family data plan, meant to undercut larger competitors AT&T and Verizon. That offering puts an end to its Framily plan, a multiple-line offering launched in January. Sprint's future marketing will drop the term and focus on promoting its new plan, the Family Share Pack.

"Right now, we're going to be very focused on our new value offering," said Jeff Hallock, Sprint's CMO. On Thursday, he said, Sprint plans to announce further price cuts on individual plans.

But the company has not decided on the fate of the Frobinson family -- oddball characters who have been featured in TV spots and established as the face of the company's brand. "That decision is still to be determined," Mr. Hallock said, declining to offer details on the carrier's marketing strategy moving forward.

Part of Sprint's indecisiveness stems from its whiplash business changes. The price cuts came twelve days after Sprint replaced CEO Dan Hesse with Marcelo Claure, a board member. That same day Softbank, Sprint's majority owner, dropped its interest in acquiring T-Mobile.

Since the 'Framily' plan kicked off, Sprint has stuck the newly-coined word at the center of its branding. The television campaign, begun in March, introduced viewers to the plan with the Frobinsons -- a multi-racial family headed by a talking hamster. At first the Frobinsons were used to tout the carrier's family offering, but they have begun promoting other products, such as Sprint's partnership with the Samsung S5 Sport smartphone.

Figiulo & Partners, the creative agency Sprint brought on board in November, is behind the Frobinson family and remains the company's creative agency of record. The agency has described the effort as akin to episodic television, with characters and plots introduced over the course of a long-running campaign. The campaign mirrors similarly off-beat spots in Japan from Softbank.

Sprint has repeatedly defended the head-turning spots, which it says have polled well with its customers. Yet analysts say the messaging has failed to build the brand, as consumers are increasingly being lured with cheaper deals.

"Sprint's brand doesn't really stand for anything in the market today," Jan Dawson, a technology analyst with Jackdaw Research, wrote after Sprint replaced its CEO. "Individual campaigns such as the Framily plan are somewhat successful, but they don't really do anything to build the broader Sprint brand."

Mr. Hallock said the Frobinsons spots have performed well for the carrier, netting positive brand recall figures. "That said, given that we're taking such a sharp turn, we're evaluating what to do," he explained.

Sprint's new plan offers subscribers 20 gigabytes of shared wireless data on four lines. The carrier is offering a discount of $100 a month, timed to end in September, when Apple is expected to reveal its latest iPhone.

The plan is aimed primarily at larger foes Verizon and AT&T, which introdued shared data plans in 2012. Yet Sprint is also attempting to ward off competition from the fourth-place carrier. T-Mobile has grown rapidly, while Sprint has been dogged by a costly network upgrade. The carrier lost 714,000 postpaid subscribers and half a million prepaid customers over the past year.

In a note on Monday, Mr. Dawson said Sprint's new prices would ensure that the carrier maintains its market share edge over T-Mobile. T-Mobile CEO John Legere has said T-Mobile is poised to surpass Sprint.

Sprint's new offering does lift a few pages from the smaller carrier's playbook, including the promise to pay early termination fees for new subscribers. Mr. Hallock described Sprint's new plans as a "radical shift to get back into the game as it relates to data."

In June, T-Mobile unveiled its new "data strong" slogan, and a month later It introduced a four-line family offering. "They've done a lot of good things in the market over the past year," Mr. Hallock said of T-Mobile. "There is clearly room in our industry for two disruptors."

In 2013, Sprint spent $1.56 billion in U.S. advertising, an 11.1% annual increase, according to the Ad Age DataCenter.

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