Verizon hones its focus

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Two kids at a chaotic outdoor concert venue connect by instant messaging one another on their wireless phones as an Alanis Morissette wannabe croons "All the world over, so easy to see, people everywhere just wanna be free." The hip cover of The Rascals' "People Got To Be Free" has become a Verizon Wireless ad signature, a celebration of wireless culture and the idea of being connected anytime, anywhere.

As the nation's largest wireless provider with 27 million customers, Verizon Wireless has positioned itself as a cool, accessible brand in ads created by True North Communications' Bozell Worldwide, New York. Bozell was the agency of record for Bell Atlantic Mobile prior to the creation of Verizon Wireless. But the young brand, created in April 2000 by the mega-merger of Bell Atlantic Mobile, AirTouch Cellular, GTE Wireless and PrimeCo Personal Communications, has more than youthful designs on the market.

The $63 billion Bedminster, N.J.-based company plans an initial public offering in the fourth quarter. Its two powerful parents-Verizon Communications, which has a 55% majority stake, and Vodafone, which owns the rest-have helped fund forays into new technologies and filled the marketing coffers with some $300 million so far.

While Verizon Wireless had a relatively solid launch, setting the stage for the debut of its parent Verizon Communications last June (AA, June 11), it had to remind consumers of its new name.

"Our first year, we had to educate consumers about who we were, and using our correct name," said Dave Bowen, director of advertising for Verizon Wireless.

"The challenges are that everyone's abandoning old identities at the same time," he said. "The Bell name is no longer there, the old equities are gone."

Rival Cingular Wireless, he noted, faces similar difficulties as it was also formed from a crazy-quilt of regional wireless entities.

"We went from a regional company to a nationwide company, the core foundation of each company was their network, so the one common denominator was the network," Mr. Bowen said, adding, "It's the essence of the brand."

Verizon Wireless touts its nationwide wireless network every chance it gets-in TV and print advertising and in its 1,220 retail stores. Mr. Bowen claims Verizon has simplified its offers, but conceded the wireless category is frequently confusing. Verizon will try to differentiate itself by touting service benefits.

"We need to drill down on our core essence on why the company is the leader in the industry," Mr. Bowen said. Network reliability and customer churn are formidable issues for Verizon Wireless and its rivals. Price sensitivity is another big one.

"That's going to be the biggest challenge: Getting them [consumers] away from the deal and going for value," Mr. Bowen said.

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