Sprint and Verizon: balls to balls, toe to toe

Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s and Burger King. Mac and PC. Hertz and Avis. In the history of advertising, there have been some pretty great one-on-one battles waged for attention and preference in various categories.

In the recent battle for supremacy among wireless service providers, the conversation has seemed to focus on network performance. Verizon’s work with Ricky Gervais pokes fun at how the other networks’ “coverage maps” are a joke.

Then, things heated up when Verizon launched their “colorful balls” spot, which then garnered near-immediate responses from both T-Mobile and Sprint. (Almost simultaneously.)

In the latest skirmish among these two rivals, Sprint has fired the loudest shot against Verizon in a long time – employing Verizon’s long-time “can you hear me now” pitchman Paul Marcarelli.

Back in 2002, Verizon launched this campaign to make the case for their “go-everywhere” coverage, and in the process, made Marcarelli a household face and voice. (It was widely reported that for the nine years he was employed by Verizon – and their agency – he was both handsomely paid, and severely restricted from pitching ANY other brands.)

However, Verizon abandoned that campaign around 2012, and Marcarelli faded into the advertising shadows.

That is, until Sprint decided to bring him back this week.

Sure, this is a gut shot at Verizon, only because Marcarelli was SO recognizable as the “Verizon guy.” Plus, the script is written specifically around him – a fictitious character, I may remind you – first, and around network coverage second.

A couple of things are interesting about this spot, especially in the way it’s channeling the legendary “we’re #2” ethos. Sprint never says “we’re the best” or “we’re the fastest.” In fact, they say they’re about 1% smaller than Verizon, but that Verizon costs nearly twice as much. Pretty good claim if that means anything to you.

Here’s the important question we should be asking: Why isn’t any one of these brands (not just Sprint and Verizon, but T-Mobile and AT&T as well,) looking to differentiate on some other attribute? Is “network performance” really that important? (Some select research must say yes, otherwise we wouldn’t see billions spent against it.)

If you look back at the classic examples (like Coke and Pepsi or McDonald’s and Burger King,) the brand that came out on top was the one who changed the conversation. Coke and Pepsi beat each other’s brains in for years about “taste,” and then Pepsi took their biggest leap forward when they altered their position to “the choice of a new generation.” (Shifting the conversation away from taste and focusing it on WHO drinks.)

For the big wireless networks, they’re going to continue beating the snot out of each other on “wireless network performance” to the same ends…a ¼-point bump in quarterly performance here, a year-on-year nominal profit margin spike there.

When one of these brands finds a new “voice” and a new position, (hint: it has to really matter for consumers,) I think you’ll see the conversation in the advertising world really start to shift. One of these marketing teams ought to be working on finding that path. Sure, the other brands will follow (almost immediately,) but there will never be a substitute for being first…for zigging when the market zags, and for creating new connections with consumers.

Writing Advertising? Shorter is Always Sweeter.


Illustration:  Bruce Crilly

In the history of advertising, some of the most lauded taglines have also been the shortest.  Why is this?  (And while we’re at it, why does the leggy blonde always seem to go out with that short guy?)

Why do we not seem to gravitate to long, multi-syllabic complex thoughtforms?  At first glance, it would seem to be useful if we could pack more bullet points into our advertising signoff, so people would remember lots of stuff about our product or service.  But for American consumers, it just doesn’t work.  Maybe it’s because we’re American.  We like it punchy.  We like it now.  We like Ricky Bobby and light beer, dammit.

Okay, that’s cynical, and not so helpful.  Let’s get serious.  For the most part, shorter taglines work for a number of reasons. Primarily, its because they’re easy to remember.  And if you’re in the business of stimulating demand (that’s what advertising is supposed to do, bee-tee-dubs,) then a short, pithy line is simply more memorable, more recall-able than, say, an advertising haiku. So there’s a form-follows-function overtone there.

Second, there’s an actual meter to consider, a rhythm, a tempo, a little bounce that shorter lines provide over their more verbose counterparts.  With a short line, the consumer can file a meme away into a corner of her mind that only your brand (in the best cases,) can occupy.

Finally, it’s about time.  The modern consumer is busier than ever, and is literally overwhelmed with messages, media, and now devices that carry and deliver information, including advertising messages.  Whether it’s social media applications, or websites, or traditional media, or a sporting event, or the floor at the local grocery store, there simply isn’t time in the consumer’s day to focus on all that content – especially your bloody marketing message.  Now, more than ever, being short and to the point is not just a welcome deviation from the discord in the din, but also a way to stand apart from it.  Brevity is indeed the essence of wit.

Although this might seem confining, remember that you can say an awful lot with a few small words.  Case in point:  ‘Be all you can be.’ for the US Army.  This line lasted more than 20 years and defined perhaps the most successful articulation of any military marketing message. Five words, of two or three letters each.  And yet, the meaning is monumental.  Partly because it’s personalized to the individual reading it via “you,” and “all” is just broad enough to cover virtually every aspect of that individual’s life.  Brilliant.

Some of the most notable short advertising taglines:

Just do it.
Think Small. (This was actually a headline but it rocked so hard, it has to be included.)
We try harder.
Got Milk?
Be all you can be.
A diamond is forever.
Think different.
It’s not TV.  It’s HBO.
Intel Inside.
Priceless.
Because You’re Worth It.
Great taste. Less filling.
I want my MTV!

Putting it into practice:

Let’s not forget, there have been immortal taglines that are not short.  (The Ultimate Driving Machine/When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight/Melts in your mouth, not in your hands, etc.) So when you set out to craft advertising for your business, keep your audience front and center, and let that dictate what you write.  What are they doing?  What do they need?  How can you help them?

Keep it simple.  Better yet, keep it short.  Pack as much into the idea that you can, without leaving too much to the imagination, (although leaving to interpretation is okay.)  Generally, basic language works best – small words, single syllables if you can help it, and a clear, declarative tone.  And NEVER make your slogan – strapline, tagline, whatever you want to call it – a question, okay?   (A really good one only happened, like, once.)

Now,  get your eraser out and start writing.