Sprint's image rises while Verizon's slips: Cowen

Cowen’s quarterly wireless survey found that 31.8% of those polled said Sprint’s brand is improving, and 38.5% of Sprint customers said it is on the rise.

Sprint’s image among consumers is at an all-time high, according to a new report from Cowen and Company, while Verizon’s brand is slipping.

Cowen’s quarterly wireless survey of more than 1,000 respondents found that 31.8% of those polled said Sprint’s brand is improving, and 38.5% of Sprint customers said it is on the rise. Only 7% of Sprint customers said the brand is worsening, marking the lowest such figure in the history of Cowen’s survey.

“While churn is expected to be challenged in 1Q17 with a now more aggressive ‘unlimited’ industry, Sprint’s image improvement is an integral part of the carrier’s recent success as we expect the carrier to leverage its improving brand and (marketed) near-network parity into continued phone add momentum against AT&T and Verizon,” Cowen analysts wrote in a note to investors.

Cowen asked respondents to rank each major U.S. carrier from No. 1 to No. 4 “for overall brand/image,” and Verizon once again emerged as the top operator. But Verizon’s average “slipped to a weighted average (of) 2.01,” Cowen reported, marking the first time that figure was greater than 2.

“We’ve noted on numerous occasions the increasing vulnerability of Verizon as the carrier is faced with the unenviable choice between sacrificing margins or subscribers,” Cowen wrote. “Data points such as brand/image declines suggest the carrier’s vulnerability is only getting more challenging as it rushes forward its 5G/digital media strategy as a way to return to differentiation and bolster its leadership position.”

Indeed, a separate research note from MoffettNathanson predicts Verizon will report a net loss of postpaid phone customers in the first quarter, while Sprint will see gains among its postpaid phone base. But those estimates have narrowed in recent months, MoffettNathanson said, due to the emergence of unlimited data plans among all four major operators.

“Revisions over the past three months—primarily in the period after Verizon’s move to unlimited data—have modestly moved phone net additions from Sprint and T-Mobile to Verizon and AT&T, … but only by small steps,” MoffettNathanson analysts wrote. “Before Verizon’s launch of unlimited, December’s consensus predicted that Verizon would lose 82,000 postpaid phone subscribers in the first quarter. Since then, that number has improved to a relatively modest loss of 37,000. This change would seem reasonable directionally—it is clear that Verizon’s move to unlimited data provided a strong boost—but perhaps fails to acknowledge the magnitude of the weakness that Verizon has since conceded in the period before its midquarter pricing move.”

Verizon will be the first of the major U.S. wireless carriers to post first-quarter results when it releases its earnings on Thursday.