Industry Voices - Lowenstein: AT&T needs a more effective marketing strategy

The sad thing is that AT&T doesn’t get nearly the credit for the leadership it has demonstrated. (Pixabay)
Mark Lowenstein

It’s going to seem like piling on, but you’ll have to trust me that this column was well in the works before the actions of Elliott Management this week. My take is that AT&T is getting slammed in part because the company has lacked a strong marketing message and because its brand does not resonate especially well with consumers. 

Last decade, Verizon developed the very successful “Can You Hear Me Now” campaign to establish the perception (matched by fact) of network superiority. Verizon still gets a surprising amount of mileage out of this perception even though the leadership delta has narrowed. And for much of this decade, T-Mobile has set the agenda for the wireless industry by addressing customer pain points with the industry and coming up with creative new ideas, reinforced by its effective ‘Un-carrier’ branding.

RELATED: Elliott trashes AT&T management and its execution in wireless

What about AT&T? On the telecom/wireless side, the company has made a lot of the right moves and is very well positioned for 5G. But the customer perception is that AT&T is still ‘Big Telco’ - its corporate ‘death star’ logo, plus DTV and Time Warner = 1980s-style corporate conglomerate. And the customer reaction since AT&T acquired Time Warner has been less about what compelling bundles and bennies will accrue and more about concerns that AT&T would ruin their beloved HBO. 

The sad thing is that AT&T doesn’t get nearly the credit for the leadership it has demonstrated in numerous areas. AT&T’s network has gotten steadily and consistently better since iPhone 3G/early 4G dark days. Its network performance leads in many markets. And, AT&T has the spectrum assets to be in a superior position, network-wise, especially if the T-Mobile/Sprint marriage is not consummated. 

Among the major U.S. carriers, I’d also argue that AT&T is a leader in network innovation. Retiring AT&T exec John Donovan deserves a lot of credit for this, starting with Domain 2.0 and continuing with leadership in virtualization, open networking, project AirGig, and a more open attitude toward partner agreements (i.e. the recent cloud deal with Microsoft). AT&T is also #1 in the enterprise — a position the company stands to enhance with FirstNet and investments the company has made in IoT. Being a strong player in the enterprise will prove increasingly important in 5G, since that’s where the lion’s share of the incremental opportunity lies.

RELATED: AT&T surpasses 750K FirstNet connections

But, AT&T doesn’t get the love from the media, the trade press, or industry analysts…who still fawn over Verizon or hope to get invited by John Legere to the next rock concert. AT&T still suffers from a perception that its network is not up to snuff (not matched by reality). DirecTV might have brought AT&T lots of cash flow, content relationships, and the subscribers it could use to pioneer an innovative ad strategy, but it has not delivered much in the way of synergies or enhancement to the brand. Let’s face it -- other than some periodic incentive programs, very few customers have switched to AT&T because of DTV. And, I’d argue that DTV has perpetuated AT&T’s ‘Big Telco’ image by being in a business that is dying a slow death in the cord-cutting era. Service blackouts due to rights fees disputes haven’t helped, either. 

Then there’s DirecTV Now (recently renamed AT&T TV Now, yuck), which went from being mediocre at launch to being OK now, which won’t cut it in an increasingly crowded field. And speaking of crowded fields, even the timing of the Time Warner acquisition was somewhat unfortunate. It now appears that AT&T’s streaming service, HBO Max, won’t launch until 2020, giving Disney Plus and Apple TV+ a several month lead. Disney Plus is going to be a pretty compelling proposition, with brand+content+$6.99 a month. A no-brainer for many. It’s hard to see where AT&T is going to find a lot of daylight in this space.

RELATED: Deeper Dive—AT&T TV falls short of ‘radically reshaping’ the concept of television

AT&T could do a lot more to help its brand, in two ways. First, it needs to do a better job trumpeting its assets, leadership, and innovation. Second, AT&T must develop some bold ideas that leverage its combined assets, and build a more compelling marketing narrative to help sell the story. Some ideas:

•    Stronger message around the network. Move away from ‘Fake News 5G (5GE)’ and ‘Faux 5G+ Launches’ (where nobody can actually buy the service). Instead, plant the seeds that the company is in a great position, long-term, to be a best-in-class wireless network, given its collection of assets (spectrum) and innovation (open networking, etc). 

•    Reinforce its leadership position in the enterprise. AT&T has long had the #1 position in the enterprise. With its assets in IoT, FirstNet, recent cloud deals, spectrum position, stumbles by Verizon, and delays in the T-Mobile/Sprint deal, the enterprise is an area with significant incremental revenue potential. AT&T has an opportunity to build its lead here.  

•    Assuage worries about HBO and do something innovative. AT&T has failed to communicate to its 150 million worldwide HBO subscribers that it is investing even more in premium content, as Netflix continues to head in a Walmart (OK, Target) direction. Instead, consumers read about HBO’s exec team being gutted and are worried sick that AT&T will abrade HBO’s quality in the name of quantity. 

But there’s also a huge upside opportunity. HBO is among the best-loved brands in a fiercely competitive business. AT&T should reinforce that HBO will remain a brand associated with premium content. And in a crowded field, good content and product differentiation will win. 

Then, why not bundle HBO Max as part of a new AT&T customer loyalty program, a la Amazon Prime? For example, any family with three or more AT&T Wireless subscribers, or customers who have been with AT&T for X years. Borrowing from the telco playbook, churn reduction is as important as subscriber additions. In an era where wireless and broadband services are increasingly commoditized, give customers a reason to stay with AT&T. 

•    Turn Xandr from liability to opportunity. AT&T is in a precarious position with its plans for targeted advertising. Big Tech’s missteps of late have handicapped any company’s attempts to muck around with customer data, no less a telecom company. Add to that the greater regulatory scrutiny telcos get compared to Internet companies (sad fact), and AT&T is not starting from a position of advantage here. 

But as the relative new kid on the targeted advertising block, AT&T has an opportunity to get it right. Start by changing the name – right now it sounds like a Pharma product. Then be really, really transparent to consumers about its plans for targeted ads showing that this can be a positive for consumers, rather than something creepy, or worse. Maybe even have them participate in the process – i.e. ‘here’s an hour of content with typical ads, and here’s that same hour with targeted ads, what’s your feedback’?

The folks at Elliott Management (and others that will now surely come out of the woodwork) will look at AT&T through a financial and shareholder lens, as well they should. But it would help if they saw that AT&T, with its collection of assets, as a story that customers are buying into. As AT&T continues to shuffle its management team and corporate structure, the company should bolster its senior marketing leadership team, in part by recruiting some fresh new talent from outside the industry. 

Job number one would be to develop a better story about how AT&T’s collection of assets position the company well for the next ten years, and to then build some greater brand equity around that message.  

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.