Verizon's new CMO talks about Droid's success, LTE pricing and why the 4G debate is meaningless

with Marni Walden, vice president and Chief Marketing Officer, Verizon Wireless with Marni Walden, vice president and chief marketing officer of Verizon Wireless

After more than 20 years in the wireless industry, Marni Walden recently was named Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) new chief marketing officer, replacing John Stratton, who was elevated to chief operating officer. Walden met with FierceWireless Editor In Chief Sue Marek at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month to talk about the operator's LTE device lineup, why pricing is just one part of the equation and how meaningless the 4G debate is.

FierceWireless: I think many of us were hoping to hear details on Verizon's LTE smartphone data pricing plans at CES. But instead you announced the devices without the pricing. Why?

Walden: We never pre-announce pricing before we launch a device. We just are not ready to do that. When we launch the devices, then we will talk about pricing.

FierceWireless: Now that so many different technologies are being characterized as 4G, including HSPA+, how do you differentiate what Verizon is doing with LTE? Is 4G becoming muddled? Do customers care what 4G means?

Walden: I have a very simple thought about this. At the end of the day, the customer is going to determine what the best network is by the way it performs and whether they can rely upon it. So it doesn't matter whether you call it 3G or 4G. I don't think that talking to ourselves as an industry is what is most important. I think delivering to the customer is what is important. We have a solid track record of making sure our network is reliable and the best network across the country. We can stand behind that and customer loyalty validates this.

We will win in the 4G space and we will win because customers say we win because we have the fastest, most reliable network. I'm not worried about what everyone else claims. I'm more worried about what our network does and how it performs. We didn't start this yesterday. We've been working for years and years to make sure our network is the best and our commitment to our investment in the network has been proven. And that's what is important. It isn't all this ‘what is 4G, what isn't 4G' debate. The industry has a tendency to talk to itself. That's a dangerous thing. Our path is to let the customer decide.

FierceWireless: With that in mind, how do you get customers to want to upgrade to 4G? If you have already marketed that you have the best network, how to you entice them to upgrade?

Walden: I think the key is to show and demonstrate the capabilities of the network. What can it do? We had a sneak peak of it today--whether it is streaming video or Skype doing video calling, real-time gaming or business applications. There are a ton of business apps with real-time medical evaluations, or live newscasts--these demonstrate the capabilities of the technology. That is our responsibility to the consumer: to show what it can do and tell that story. We will do that in our marketing and we also rely upon reputation, store distribution and our customer word of mouth.

FierceWireless: Do customers want 4G?

Walden: I think they want 4G but they may not know why. We have to show them what they can do with 4G that they haven't been able to do before. It's not just about being fast. It's about enabling them to do things they couldn't do before. We have to show that it's simple. There's a lot of romance with 4G but I'm not sure anyone understands why. The customer needs to get their applications the way they want them and at a very high quality.

FierceWireless: When you look at your device portfolio--how do you differentiate the various devices? How closely do you work with the manufacturers when it comes to marketing?

Walden: We have a very diverse portfolio of devices. Certainly customers have different needs and desires and like different form factors. But we also have devices that we do exclusive arrangements with. That's where the Droid name comes from. Not all devices are equal and there are certain devices that we put more energy into. It's important to customers that we not be the one-trick pony. We have to have a diverse lineup of devices and operating systems.

FierceWireless: Do you think the Droid strategy has worked?

Walden: Yes, absolutely I think it has worked.  

FierceWireless: Why? How do you measure that success?

Walden: We do have some research results that we haven't made public yet but clearly the Droid elevated the entire Android operating system. Our partnership that we announced with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and then with Motorola (NYSE:MOT) put the operating system on a path--and it has elevated the devices and the OS. And the customer feedback on our product has been very good.

FierceWireless: You haven't talked about pricing yet, but my theory is that innovative pricing will set operators apart from the competition. Right now, there's a follow-me attitude. Do you agree? How critical is pricing to this equation?

Walden: I don't agree. I'm watching closely what matters to customers. And from 2008 until today there has been a lot of movement in this area. There are certain categories, such as referral, device or network that have always been important. And there are three categories that are really important now--device, network and value. I don't see value as being low price. I actually believe network and device are more critical now and in the future because of the capabilities. That's why Verizon is set up so well. Those two elements--network and device--are critical. Now value is important too, but we will win because we are so well set up with the other two. I don't see value as the top driver for whether people will stay.