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.