Wireless carriers: Is it time to launch a premium brand?

By Sangit Rawlley

Wireless is a great social leveler. Whether you are Joe the millionaire or Joe the plumber you have to subscribe to the same wireless service, shop at the same store, call the same customer service number and pay the same for your wireless service. 

In other industries we can upgrade to a better service, better quality and a more emotionally enriching experience. If you are not happy with the Toyota you drive, you can upgrade to a Lexus, if you don't like the service at the Courtyard Marriott you can stay at the JW Marriott. But when it comes to your wireless service you don't have any such options. I believe now is the time for wireless carriers to launch a premium brand. 

Traditionally the network was the key differentiating factor. The company that had the largest coverage provided the most value. But this is no longer true. All major carriers provide similar coverage and call quality. In fact, many carriers globally have started sharing or building joint networks. Bell and Telus in Canada recently announced that they'll build a joint HSPA network. Similar deals have been signed in Europe and Asia. The value is shifting up stream from the network to customer service, distribution and brand.

In developed countries wireless penetration is reaching or exceeding 100 percent and wireless service is commoditized. The voice rates have been falling consistently (in the U.S. voice revenue per minute fell from $0.24 in 2000 to $0.05 in 2008) and now we see the same trend with data pricing. The best option to break away from this trend is to create and launch premium brands that offer an enhanced value proposition justifying a higher price point.

The premium handset space is heating up. OEM's and fashion houses are collaborating to launch high-end handsets.   

  • Dior introduced its own line of in-house designed mobile phones.
  • Samsung unveiled its luxury phone, Emporio Armani Night.
  • In addition to the Prada phone, LG launched "Lotus" designed by Christian Siriano.
  • Motorola launched its latest fashion mobile phone, Motojewel.
  • Vertu, Nokia's ultra-luxury cellphone brand updated its flagship cellphone Vertu Signature

The list goes on.  ABI Research forecasts that revenues from premium-branded handsets will exceed $11 billion next year, increasing to more than $43 billion in 2013.

Who is best positioned to launch a premium brand?

Start-ups such as Voce attempted to play in this space but failed.  Ability to offer the best quality of wireless service, a wide variety of premium handsets, and being the leader in bringing the latest products to market is a pre-requisite to successfully offering a premium wireless service.  No control over the wireless network, lack of scale, tight marketing budgets and a long timeline to get handsets and applications approved by carrier means that start-ups are not in the best position to offer such a service. 

Nokia recently announced its plan to launch premium wireless services targeted at the wealthy Japanese customers. Nokia will offer services over NTT DoCoMo's network with its Vertu line of handsets. Vertu handsets are made with jewels, precious metals and premium leather and will retail for $17,000 to $52,000.  These phones also feature a "concierge key" that enables access to a round-the-clock personal assistant to help with travel, dining and entertainment arrangements.

Although Nokia holds a 39 percent share of the world's handset market, its handset presence in Japan remains small.  Hence, this is a smart attempt by Nokia to boost its image and market share in Japan, but I do not believe it is scalable to other countries. Nokia will have no control over the wireless network and this will limit its ability to bring new services to market and also increase the time to resolve network-related issues. For example, the Vertu phones will not be compatible with DoCoMo's i-mode Internet service or provide terrestrial digital television reception, both hugely popular services in Japan.  Also, a business model that relies on selling handsets to carriers and also competes against them will not succeed in the long term. 

Now that we have ruled out OEM's and other companies we are only left with wireless carriers.  Wireless carriers need to adopt the strategy the hotel and automobile industry has successfully implemented. Players in both industries offer multiple brands and products targeted at different segments. Marriott offers the Fairfield Inn brand to the value conscious customer and the JW Marriott brand to the customer seeking luxury. Automobile manufacturers do this exceptionally with three or four different brands selling cars built on the same platform but with different accessories and external features and upgrades.

Wireless carriers need to do the same. They need to create niche brands that are targeted at a specific segment. Canadian carriers have launched sub-brands targeted at the youth segment.  Rogers has Fido, Telus has Kudoo and Bell has Solo.  In the U.S., Sprint is serving the urban youth segment through its Boost brand.  Similarly, wireless carriers should launch premium brands that are targeted at the wealthy.

So what should a premium wireless service offer and how should it differentiate from the regular wireless service?  

Current wireless services are structured around nationwide coverage, a decent portfolio of handsets with limited exclusivity, low price, extensive distribution through direct and indirect channels, average retail and customer experience, complicated billing, limited content, high international roaming costs, handset subsidies and contracts.

A premium wireless service will not only need to eliminate, reduce, and raise some of these existing factors, but also create new factors as described below.


  • Handset subsidies - target segment can afford to pay for high-end handsets
  • Contracts - freedom to switch if not satisfied is important.  If great service is provided the customer will want to stay, rendering a contract unnecessary.


  • Distribution - sell through limited but high-end carrier-owned experience and indirect channels such as Neimen Marcus, Nordstrom


  • Coverage - install femtocells at no additional costs to improve indoor coverage
  • Prices - offer customized rate plans that cater to the high-end customer.  An example might be, all you can eat with international data and voice roaming for one set price. 
  • Handset choice - offer a wide range of high end handsets including premium brands and personalized handsets designed for specific person or family, maybe with a family logo or crest or corporate logo of the family owned business.
  • Retail experience - offer personal service by appointment through specially trained staff who are technical experts and have great interpersonal skills.  Also have the option to have the personal assistance visit the customer.
  • Customer Service - top of the line and personalized customer service through a dedicated phone number, no wait time and direct interaction with a customer service rep.
  • Billing Experience - one price, all inclusive, unlimited usage plan reduces disputes and keeps billing costs low.
  • Exclusive Content - exclusive content such as access to audio books, premium online periodicals etc.
  • International Roaming Services - better services while roaming internationally such as customer support, virtual home environment etc.  Assign Cellular Concierge with native fluency in the language or languages of the country the person is travelling too.


  • Membership Fee - an annual membership fee to create an exclusive club similar to the one charged by premium credit cards such as American Express Black.
  • Image - create a separate high end brand. Create an exclusive image such as Nokia's ultra-premium brand Vertu. When buying a Vertu phone you don't just buy a mobile phone, you buy into the "Vertu world" -- "for individuals who only accept the best."  Offer exclusive websites such as those offered by luxury car companies. 
  • Concierge Services - Almost all luxury car brands offer concierge services.  Similarly, the premium wireless service should also offer these services.  The cell phone should have a dedicate button like the one on Vertu phones, which connects the owner to a concierge service worldwide that will fix their little problems, like theatre tickets, travel arrangements, dinner reservations, chocolates for the wife and flowers for the secretary.

It is now the wireless carrier's turn to take the lead in creating niche brands.  They have complete control over their network, are cash rich, can benefit from established relationships with OEM's, can bring handsets and applications to market faster and can launch a transnational premium wireless service.  First mover advantage is important as space at the top of the pyramid is limited.  It will be interesting to see which carrier makes the first move. 

Sangit Rawlley is a senior manager and practice lead with inCode Telecom (www.incodetel.com), a consulting firm focused on providing strategy, business planning, strategic sourcing, engineering and integration services to companies across the communications and media value chain.