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The race to build powerful new brands in the exploding wireless communications industry is turning hectic.

U S West's decision late last month to join its cellular telephone operations with the West Coast's powerful AirTouch cellular brand jolted rivals, and industry insiders say more such partnerships are around the corner.

That's because for companies from AT&T to GTE Corp., opportunities in the wireless communications market have never been brighter. But with a lack of solid national brands and a cacophony of competition, the industry has begun to call on marketing to make the difference.

"The Baby Bells' movement to partnerships for wireless communications is the way it's going, because there's a tremendous need to join forces to create strong, recognizable names, and quickly," said Jane Zweig, VP-marketing for the cellular telecommunications consultancy Herschel Shosteck Associates, Silver Spring, Md.

The number of U.S. cellular telephone subscribers grew 45% last year, reaching a total of 16 million in 1993, said the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, Washington. The association estimates 14,000 new users are now signing on each day; national penetration is still only 8%.

As the price of cellular telephones and service plummets due to competition, growth is coming from senior citizens, students and teen-agers in addition to business executives.

As business booms, all cellular players are jockeying for national marketing clout by developing recognizable identities.

Baby Bells Nynex Corp., New York, and Bell Atlantic Corp., Philadelphia, will market cellular services under one brand following the recently proposed merger of their cellular operations, and other Baby Bells are eyeing similar strategies.

No. 3 long-distance provider Sprint's cellular division is said to be ripe for such partnership opportunities, as is Chicago-based Baby Bell Ameritech.

The urgency to develop brands is fueled by the expected arrival next year of new "personal communications services" providing local and long-distance wireless communications nationwide.

And AT&T's invasion of the cellular market-following the expected finalization of its merger with No. 1 cellular player McCaw Cellular Communications, Kirkland, Wash., later this year-is also striking fear into the hearts of existing providers.

AT&T is expected to apply its brand to cellular operations serving more than 3 million subscribers, leveraging the well known name against all smaller players with a major TV and print campaign expected next year.

AT&T will not confirm plans and has given no indication which agency will be used.

The Richards Group, Dallas, currently handles McCaw's advertising, with various local shops working on projects.

Struggling now to achieve nationwide brand recognition is MobiLink, a brand used by a consortium of 25 cellular telephone providers to offer nationwide service. Nynex and BellSouth, Atlanta, say MobiLink has helped increase consumer awareness, but even MobiLink VP-Advertising John Mauney concedes the brand's overall awareness is "still fairly low."

A national spot TV campaign for MobiLink, created by J. Walter Thompson USA, San Francisco, is currently airing.

Even more confusing is the fate of Cellular One, a brand developed jointly by Southwestern Bell Corp., San Antonio, Texas, and McCaw. The brand is licensed by dozens of cellular providers nationwide, including McCaw rivals. "It's extremely confusing-imagine how consumers feel trying to sort it out," said a BellSouth spokeswoman.

The Baby Bell uses Cellular One in Florida, where it competes directly with McCaw.

No. 1 local telephone service provider GTE Corp., Stamford, Conn., sees the escalating consolidations among cellular players and Baby Bells as an advantage.

"The combinations and mergers we're seeing could be a plus for us. Among other things, it means fewer entities trying to get into the [personal communications services] market along with us," said Jeff Keller, director of communications for No. 3 cellular provider GTE Personal Communications Services, Atlanta, which serves 1.9 million cellular subscribers in 15 states.

Englewood, Colo.-based U S West, through its merger with AirTouch, will serve 1.7 million customers, and says it's too soon to say which brand will be used by the combined entity.

U S West's cellular agency is BBDO Worldwide, Minneapolis; Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., handles advertising for AirTouch.

Also undetermined is how Nynex and Bell Atlantic will jointly market their cellular services-serving 1.8 million subscribers- and whether they'll use existing brand names or invent a new name.

"We'll gain obvious advantages for brand marketing and customer convenience by pooling our resources, but the committees haven't even been formed yet to decide which brand we'll use," said a Nynex spokesman.

W.B. Doner & Co., Baltimore, currently handles Bell Atlantic's cellular account; Kobs & Draft, New York, is Nynex's cellular agency.

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