Special Report: Forget about wired, the future is wireless

By Published on .

It's nearly noon. You're hungry, but not sure what you want. You head out of your downtown office tower and start walking. Suddenly your mobile phone beeps with a text message. It's the McDonald's up the street offering 50 cents off a Big Mac. A burger and fries it is.

Back at work, your spouse calls asking if you could pick up a few things at the grocery store on the way home. Sure, you say. As you're browsing the aisles for soap, an electronic display beckons. "Try the new Dove. Download your buy-one-get-one-free coupon," it says. You aim your Palm X--the latest model, natch--at the display and get the coupon in a nanosecond.

Paying for the groceries is a snap: Hold the mobile phone up to the scanner and the bill goes right to your credit card.

As you drive home, the car's computer beeps with a reminder that you need to get your oil changed and that there's a Jiffy Lube just five blocks away. Would you like an appointment? Tomorrow, you respond.


Sound far-fetched? Not to a lot of marketers who believe that wireless communication may change the way people receive and respond to marketing messages even more than the Internet has.

"The future is wireless," says David Stern, former VP of Unilever's Interactive Brand Center and the new CEO of a beauty site being developed by Unilever and iVillage. "The future is consumers connecting to the brand information service they need wherever they are, and wireless is going to be the major component to that."

Already, Palm Inc., maker of the Palm wireless electronic organizers, offers an array of convenience services via Palm.net, its wireless Internet access service, including package tracking via FedEx and flight updates from American Airlines. The Starbucks Coffee Store Locator is among the 10 most popular downloads, Palm reports.

But the big shift will come when there are more ways to access the wireless Web--and a bigger base of users. As of last year, there were 3.6 million U.S. subscribers to wireless services with Web browsing capabilities, according to International Data Corp. By 2003, IDC estimates there will be more than 40 million. Such devices include Web-ready versions of wireless phones and Palm and Windows CE electronic organizers.

Wireless Internet access services are on an uptick; Palm reported 34,000 Palm.net subscribers as of December, six months after the service's launch.


Marketing over wireless devices could offer new opportunities for companies that haven't found Internet advertising a perfect environment.

"You have the opportunity with a wireless device to be very close to point of purchase that you may not [have] with the Web," says Sharon Katz, group media director with Modem Media-Poppe Tyson, Norwalk, Conn.

Unilever, for example, is participating in "small-scale" wireless tests, Mr. Stern says, though he declined to discuss specifics. Similar to the banner ad tests done in the early days of the Internet, the experiments are designed to help Unilever learn what customers want.

"Wireless will enable the consumer to get that solution where they need it most," Mr. Stern says, "rather than forcing them into an artificial environment where they have to sit down at a PC."

Qualcomm, a leading supplier of technology for wireless phones, also is positioning itself to play in wireless advertising. Last month, Qualcomm began selling ad space on Eudora, its e-mail management software for PCs. In January, Qualcomm paid $1 billion for SnapTrack, which provides technology to track the location of wireless devices. Qualcomm already makes a version of Eudora (without ads) that works with Palm devices. Mix and match the possibilities, Qualcomm executives say, and it is conceivable that Eudora eventually could deliver geographically targeted ads and content to wireless devices.

"I think it's inevitable that you will see ad-supported models on [wireless] devices," says Jeffrey Belk, VP-general manager of Qualcomm's Eudora Products. "There's lots of ways where Eudora can develop that would be fairly strategic to Qualcomm. We see a lot of avenues where the dots connect with the core of what Qualcomm is doing in terms of developing [wireless] technology."

The desire to experiment is propelling Jiffy Lube International toward wireless marketing as well, says Joel Schwalb, franchise development manager.


In January Jiffy Lube started a six-month test to deliver text-based marketing messages over mobile phones with Geoworks Corp., a provider of information services to mobile users. The messages are sent to San Francisco-area subscribers of Geoworks' Mobile Attitude service, and feature a discount on a midweek oil change.

Much of the decisionmaking about car maintenance happens when people are driving their cars, not when they're at home in front of the computer, says Gary Lillian, Jiffy Lube's senior VP-marketing. Marketing via mobile phones "fits with our strategy to be a lot more relevant in our messaging to consumers," he says.

It's too soon for meaningful results from the test, Mr. Lillian says. But he looks at it as an opportunity to "get smart early on and know what the value is."

And the price is right--Jiffy Lube is paying nothing for its initial six-month trial, Mr. Lillian says.

Geoworks declined to comment on its pricing strategy.

General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile, meanwhile, last month became the first car marketer to create a site for users of the Palm.net service so they can locate the nearest Olds dealer or comparison shop without going to their computer. But there's one stumbling block: Users must download the Oldsmobile application from the Palm.net site before they can use it, instead of just logging into the Web site.


In late February, Oldsmobile launched a sweepstakes through Giant Step, Chicago, to promote the new service, giving away 10 Palm VIIs. Giant Step and SilverCube, Rochester, Mich., built Olds' Palm.net application.

"We believe we'd rather be on the forefront and be the leader in this area rather than catch up later on," says Li-Yuen Yee, interactive marketing manager at Oldsmobile. "As technology grows, we'd rather grow with it."

The biggest benefit to marketing via wireless devices--the ability to reach someone at the point of need--may also be the biggest challenge, however. While the Federal Communications Commission mandates wireless phone services provide users' location for 911 emergency calls, there has already been backlash against junk e-mail. The idea of getting an unwanted marketing message on a mobile phone could be even more repulsive.

"We can't envision a time when you'll be driving by a retailer and your phone will spontaneously ring and tell you what's on sale at the retailer," says Eric Winkler, VP-marketing at Vicinity Corp., which markets store-locator services for wireless platforms. Some of its clients include Nike, FedEx Corp., Levi Strauss & Co. and Starbucks Coffee Co.

"That takes the spam from the Web and makes it spam from the phone." Mr. Winkler says.


United Airlines has a similar viewpoint; while it offers flight status information over wireless devices, the airline doesn't expect to send marketing messages over mobile phones.

"Our focus has really been on providing customers the information they are looking for," says a United spokesman.

In the short term, marketing via wireless devices may be simply another way to reach existing customers. But as marketing communications become increasingly consumer-centric, and as marketers learn more about their customers, the idea of getting a coupon for a Big Mac at the moment you're craving something to eat isn't so far-fetched after all.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

Most Popular
In this article: