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The Mobile Carrier Wars: All About Comparative Advertising And Brand Awareness

October 2, 2019 Sarah Cavill

Mobile use is up, heads are buried in phones more than ever and mobile carriers have long used a litany of marketing campaigns to flex their coverage and speed capabilities. Most of the campaigns highlight carrier benefits and poke holes in the competition. The “mobile carrier wars” can get heated, with some battles even leading to lawsuits, but most mobile carrier marketing campaigns are good fun and examples of the successful use of spokespeople, catch phrases and comparative advertising.

Verizon And AT&T Go Back And Forth In A Series Of Marketing Campaigns

Verizon and AT&T are both companies with market values of more than $50 billion, making them among the top three telecommunications companies worldwide, with a combined market share of more than 68%. Many of the Verizon and AT&T campaigns involve comparative advertising taunting the other carrier and pushing the brand’s own dominance in a certain area.  

Talk & Surf

There was a time when AT&T’s network was the only one that let you chat and surf simultaneously and to highlight this perk the carrier created a spot called “Answer.” “Answer” features a guy who urgently needs to chat with his girlfriend while making a dinner reservation at the same time. It wasn’t a direct dig at the competition, but instead a definite pat on AT&T’s own back. 

There’s A Map For That

There’s A Map For That was the ad campaign that led to a lawsuit. Verizon’s ads used maps to compare the coverage of Verizon’s 3G network to that of AT&T — with significantly less coverage on the AT&T map. Not surprisingly, AT&T wasn’t pleased. By excluding AT&T’s huge 2G coverage, AT&T believed Verizon misrepresented their rival’s total reach. Although the lawsuit was eventually dropped, the idea that Verizon had a better network than AT&T stuck for many consumers. 

Yes, I Can Hear You Now

Verizon, using its already ubiquitous catchphrase “Can You Hear Me Now?” threw some shade at AT&T, once again about AT&T’s network quality. Chuffed after a record-breaking, pre-order sell-out of the Verizon iPhone, Verizon used the spot to show off the new iPhone, previously only available from AT&T, and assure audiences that with Verizon’s network “Yes, I Can Hear You Now.”

When Mobile Carriers Fight Back

In a 2015 commercial called “a better network as explained by colorful balls,” Verizon continued with the same messaging that had been successful for them in prior campaigns — better network, speed and reliability. In the spot, different colored balls that coincide with the branding colors of Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile race down a track with a voiceover comparing Verizon’s success in various categories compared to its competitors. Verizon wins the race.

In response, Sprint and T-Mobile both created similar commercials directly addressing the claims, calling out Verizon by name and citing Sprint’s own winning stats. All this infighting might be smart strategizing by carriers, but it’s definitely a win for consumers. PR agency CerconeBrownCompany notes, “The good news for us [consumers] is that while these leading carriers fight over who is better, it is the consumer who ultimately wins. Both Verizon and Sprint offer to pay for the fees to change carriers, which can sometimes be several hundred dollars. Sprint also started a promotion cutting their rates in half. Not too shabby a deal. Better offers and new campaigns make the prospect of changing carriers more appealing, showing the prevalent nature – and the continued effectiveness – of comparative advertising.”

Verizon Guy Jumps Networks

Sprint, having previously struggled against the top carriers, started to turn business around and landed Verizon’s famous “Can You Hear Me Now?” pitchman as the new face of their brand and messaging in 2016. Sprint’s new commercials basically conceded that Sprint didn’t have the most coverage, but that 1% hardly mattered anymore when “every network is great.” Verizon responded with the competitive snark that has often defined the mobile carrier wars: “Sprint is using our 2002 pitchman because their network is finally catching up to our 2002 network quality," said Jeffrey Nelson, VP of Communications at Verizon, adding that Verizon is the "most awarded wireless network ever.”

Creating a brand identity that sticks with consumers, whether it’s a catchphrase or a familiar face, can help with brand awareness and increase sales when consumers are choosing mobile plans. Comparative advertising, however, has dominated the mobile carrier wars, including on social media. T-Mobile’s new renewable energy campaign plainly points its finger at AT&T and Verizon for not highlighting their own renewable energy plans. Brands who effectively highlight their strengths as compared to their competitors may be risking some blowback, but ultimately they set themselves apart and offer consumers more information when it’s time to pick a mobile carrier.

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About the Author

Sarah Cavill

With more than 20 years of writing, editing and reporting experience, Sarah Cavill brings to Digital Media Solutions (DMS) a fine-tuned and diverse set of skills. Her work has been featured in notable publications including The Daily Muse, CBS Local, Techlicious and Glamour magazine. Sarah has a passion for current events and the deep-dive research that goes into the content development and brand identity of DMS Insights. In her role as Senior Marketing Communications Writer, Sarah contributes to the pitching, researching and writing of multiple stories published each week surrounding digital and performance marketing innovations in pop culture, news, social media, branding and advertising.

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