Millward Slaps Sprint: Tags Brand 'Fading Star'

In Wireless Sector, Carrier Lacks Momentum of Cingular and Verizon

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SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Sprint nextel corp., the nation's No. 3 wireless carrier, has been labeled a "fading star" by a leading global research firm.

In rankings based on consumer research, financial data and brand momentum, Millward Brown Optimor dropped Sprint from "largely stable" in 2002 to a declining brand this year. "Sprint has very low forward momentum," noted Millward Brown Exec VP Joanna Seddon, markedly lower than that of competitors Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile.

The firm ranks brands at three levels: The top "Olympic" brands, followed by strong, stable brands dubbed "Classic." Both Cingular and Verizon rank in that category, above Sprint, which has fallen to the third designation, "Fading Stars."

"Sprint performs as well as they do on awareness-it's just that the forward momentum is lacking," said Ms. Seddon, because it's been ineffective in turning that awareness into loyal customers. "They lost their differentiation," she said. "Something needs to happen."

Despite some hefty media spending behind its "Yes you can" campaign following the merger with Nextel a year ago, Sprint recently announced a flat rate of 2.1% churn, or the ability to reduce customer loss. Sprint added only 708,000 customers-most of them less desirable prepaid customers-while its two bigger competitors each gained more than 1.5 million.

CEO Gary D. Forsee told Wall Street analysts that Sprint's messaging will evolve into one around "the power of our networks and services." That tack will put it in direct competition with Verizon Wireless, which has long had a network superiority message, and Cingular, which used a campaign this year to boost its reliability message.

Mike Goff, VP-advertising at Sprint, said the "Power Up" campaign has a significant product component, emphasizing the carrier's two extra free calling hours from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

focus on function

Mr. Goff said Sprint plans to take an industry leadership position by demonstrating new phone functionality, such as video, music and mobile TV. To parlay its five-year, $600 million deal with the National Football League, Sprint is touting its NFL Mobile service, which will provide statistics and game highlights. The TV effort, from TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, stars Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

However, it's not clear how well that strategy will work, given a recent study by Jupiter Research that found only 1% of mobile-phone subscribers choose service based on entertainment options (AA, Aug. 14).

Sprint, which has a strong claim for innovation in the category, is poised to take the next leap forward with its announcement of next- generation wireless technology, or 4G network, using Wimax, to be sold in conjunction with its cable-company customers.

Sprint has also hedged its subscriber bets by providing its network to a large base of MNVOs, or mobile virtual network operators, which are developing their own brands.
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