Note to AT&T: Don't do it!

Cingular Is a Brand That Means Something

By Published on .

When AT&T recently acquired Cingular, it got millions of wireless customers. And a strong brand.
Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
However, AT&T immediately announced that it was retiring the Cingular name in favor of its predecessor name, AT&T. (Got that so far?) The company claims that it wants to consolidate its services under one brand name.

Normally, I would agree that one brand, one voice is a smart move. However, in this case, I think it's a colossal mistake. Once upon a time, AT&T was a revered brand. Stood for quality, reliability, excellent service, innovation, mom & pop, comfort, monopoly, America. We all know that the brand has been mismanaged since then, and now suffers from other attributes: stodgy, poor customer service, shoddy quality. In short, it's your father's AT&T. Yet, the critical customer base for wireless products is the 18-to-35 year old crowd. Think they care about AT&T as much as its new owners think they do? Not for a minute.

SBC & Bell South spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past several years building a hip brand in Cingular. There's significant equity in the Cingular name. You'd think AT&T would be smart enough to recognize it.

If I were head of Verizon, I'd be all over this marketing blunder. I'd heavy-up a marketing effort to Cingular's core audience and steal some of its cool. Though no one really knows what eventually will happen as a result of AT&T's move to bury Cingular, there are lessons for small agencies here:

  1. Consistency for consistency's sake is a lot of marketers talking to themselves. Give your clients the advice they need to hear vs. what they want to hear, or bully your agency into.
  2. Smaller advertisers tend to tire of brands faster than larger companies. This is partly a result of a lack of sophisticated marketers in small-to-mid-size companies. Also, it's an effect from marketer turnover. The new VP of marketing wants to make his/her statement, regardless of what is best for the brand. This is a time that the agency must stand up for what's right for the brand. Bring in some new research. A new insight. Anything relevant that will do the right thing for the brand and the audience.
  3. Is anyone thinking about the consumer? Cell phone companies are not banks. I think consumers do want to associate themselves with a company that they can identify with. Cingular was exactly that. Sure, people adjust to new names when their bank is sold. And Cingular customers will, too. But I bet many of them will walk away from the brand over time...especially if the competition plays their cards right. Agencies and their clients should always ask consumers what they think of the new brand. Or, in this case, the old one.
  4. You can't just throw money at a brand and expect it to stick.
The transition to the old AT&T name is going to take place over a period of months. Should be interesting to see what happens. I plan to revisit it towards the end of the year. In the meantime, I'm going on EBay to buy a little, animated orange X.
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