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.

Battling Browsers: It’s Getting Personal Between Google and Bing

Every now and again, you might notice that two competing marketers are duking it out in the marketplace in the battle for top of mind among consumers or business prospects.  In our business, this phenomenon has been given the populist term “cola wars” in reference to Coke and Pepsi’s long-standing barrage of Hatfield/McCoy eruptions on the television airwaves,  likely touched off by the “take the Pepsi challenge” campaign from the mid 1970’s. In some cases, (like political advertising,) competitive advertising gets downright ugly – strong marketing ideas are replaced with unfounded attacks or gross exaggerations of the competitor’s position. But in other cases, the battle for supremacy can lead to something refreshingly interesting:  really great work.

Such is the case with the recent browser wars between Google and Bing.  Both have rolled out some new features, (see PC World’s comparison here,) and Bing is actually gaining market share on Google at a modestly increasing pace.  All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher commented on this in a recent post.   Interesting similarity between the Google/Bing and Coke/Pepsi battles:  Bing has roughly ¼ the market share that Google enjoys; between them, they occupy the #1 and #2 spot in the market; and like Coke, Google was first to market.

Despite the numbers telling a very clear story, both the Goliath and the David in this scenario are compelled to articulate their positions.  And their recent work really shines for a number of reasons.  Let’s look a spot from each marketer:

Bing

Google

As you can see, both marketers have employed roughly the same strategy:  “humanize search.”  And in both cases, they have managed to do that very well. But there’s something interesting at work here that needs to be noticed: neither of these spots is trying to do anything overly persuasive.  Rather, the thesis seems to be “you’re going to search anyway, so you might as well use our browser.”

Google’s spot touts Chrome’s ability to integrate Google’s robust technology set:  mail, doc and video sharing, translation, social integration, maps and more.  As the main character in this spot tries to win back his lost love, he has the benefit of a wide variety of tools at his disposal.  The Bing spot focuses primarily on the social integration feature – the user in the spot is getting hotel and sightseeing recommendations from friends as he initiates his search of Hawaii – “try the spicy Poke!” becomes part of his search experience. (And then we see it come to life in the spot as the main character’s mouth is set on fire.)

As I’ve written in an earlier post here on Marketing Thingy, “Community” is ultimately the holy grail for brands.  So it makes sense that search engines should integrate the social experience into searching for information.  After all, while we have all come to trust Big Brother’s algorithms, we’ll always put more weight on the opinions of our friends and colleagues.  When you get them both, you’re pretty much rolling in tall cotton.

So each spot does a fine job of communicating both features and benefits.  Google’s feature set leads to a richer searching experience because it allows you to communicate your thoughts and feelings most completely.  Bing’s core feature of integrating search with social allows you to have a richer searching experience because of the value of your social network’s opinions.  Both are pretty strong positions.

If we’re scoring, I give the edge to the Bing spot.  It’s more efficient:  it does in 60 seconds what takes Google a minute and a half.  It’s more cinematic:  you have to read your way through most of the Google Spot.  And there’s an unexpected twist :  the innocent search for things to do in Hawaii turns into a life change as the last scene is our protagonist “searching” for a job in Hawaii while checking out a 2 bedroom ocean-view rental.

Both spots are equally smart and sensitive.  Both spots accomplish the strategic objective of humanizing search.  Both spots are a very strong reflection of the creative teams that worked on them – it’s hard to put a human touch on a largely unemotional information exchange experience.  Both spots create a compelling narrative of where search can take you.  And they accomplish the unenviable task of convincing you that if your friends are coming along for the ride, then those searches can take you around the world or back to the center of it. Bravo browser wars!