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.

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Super Bowl 49 – Grins and Groans

If you’re a football fan, you liked this game. A slow burn, with twists and turns, and a dramatic finish. Good stuff. (Unless you’re a Seahawks fan, then, not so much.)

If you’re an advertising fan, you got pretty much a reflection of the game: a kind of slow and steady stream of ads, none of which made you say “wow,” and a few headscratchers late.

Mostly, we were left with questions:
Where were the really big ideas?

Where was Chrysler? (there was only the one Fiat spot and it was pretty funny) – but after Dylan, Eastwood and Eminem, they had set the bar pretty high, and not seeing them in the game was weird.

And seriously: what was Nationwide thinking???

A few themes this year that were notable:

Dads – three advertisers embraced dads this year: Dove, Nissan and Toyota. (And we’re not sure why, exactly.)

Puppies – Bud’s follow-up to “Puppy Love” from last year, and GoDaddy’s “controveersial” spot that never made it to the air (and it should have, since their “replacement” spot was meh.)

Celebrities poking fun at themselves:

Kardashian for T-Mobile was really good and funny and actually made good advertising.

Brosnan for Kia was very well done and a big grinner for me.

Pete Rose for Skechers was actually cute, and he was a good sport to take on that sensitive subject matter with such air.

The Esurance spots with Lindsay Lohan and Bryan Cranston proving that “sorta” is not good enough were pretty good.

And Liam Neeson absolutely KILLED IT in his I’m- a-badass-and-I’m-coming-for-you brogue for Clash of Clans.

The ads that made me grin:

Fiat and the little blue pill:

Mercedes Benz fable

Coke

Double Grins:

BMW i3 with Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel

This spot was funny, had great performances, and made an excellent point: big ideas take a little getting used to.  Smart, and very non-typical auto advertising.

Snickers Brady Bunch

Snickers took their “you’re not you when you’re hungry” to a great new place, by going to a great old place.  Well done!

Doritos – When Pigs Fly

This wasn’t my favorite of the Doritos “crash the Super Bowl” ads, but it was still entertaining, light-hearted, and well-executed.

But my biggest grin came early in the game when I saw this spot from Turbo Tax:

Man this was just flat out good. High cinematic value in the production of the spot, and high concept in rewriting history around a simple (and relatively benign) benefit of “free filing.”

Of course, we all know it’s free to file your federal return. But you still have to pay for the software of course, and for state taxes, you’ll still shell out that pesky little 29.95 or so. Bah, details. They made a great ad!

As usual, there were some groans this year.  And one flat headscratcher.

Groans:

Cure.com insurance (pair of 15’s) – bad jokes, worse production.

Jumlia – credit to coming into the game as a first time advertiser, but it was forgettable – an animatic for toenail fungus. They could have made like a billion or so targeted impressions online, and still had a couple million bucks left over to buy a whole bunch of spots during the professional bowling championships later in the year, when toenail fungus really flairs up. (Duh.)

Squarespace with Jeff Bridges – just weird. Any ad that’s going to make you go to a URL to figure out what it’s all about is just a waste of the airtime. Who’s going to leave the game for that? And for Jeff Bridges acting creepy? No thank you.

But the biggest WTF this year was Nationwide Insurance’s “make safe happen.” I can’t even believe they chose THIS strategy, and chose THIS buy. Didn’t anybody over there THINK about what the typical super bowl viewing environment is? You’re talking beer, wings, chips, salsa. You’re trash-talking about your team. And wait, now we’re thinking about our potentially dead children? No, no, no. NO! Kids and puppies in advertising are great…but you don’t KILL them in your spots. Jeez! You’d think somebody over there knew the basic rules.

Outside of the Turbo Tax spot, there was no real altitude attained this year in terms of high concept approaches. A few bright spots, and a few duds. Oh, and Nationwide killing our children to make a very serious point at a really shitty time. And that’s STILL not as bad as that one really bad decision to pass at the 1-yard line by the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator late in the game.

Until next year, keep grinning!

Super Bowl 2014: Grins and Groans

First off, condolences to the Denver Broncos organization and their fans. That’s what we call a rough day at the office. And for those of you who are fans of Super Bowl advertising, it was kind of a rough night on the couch. Again.

Last year, we had a few “wows” interrupted by a lot of mediocre. Sadly, that trend continued through 2014. And at $133,000 per SECOND, that can mean some rough Mondays for some advertising executives.

SINGLE GRINS:
Radio Shack – good for them for poking fun at themselves as they make their re-rebrand statement. (Remember “The Shack” attempt from a few years back?) Best tweet of the night I read said something like “Radio Shack had to close 10 of their 12 stores to pay for that spot.” At least they’re trying.

Heinz – after sitting on the sidelines (yes, all puns intended,) for 16 years, Heinz returns with a feel-good spot to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it…” Solid, simple, reminder advertising. The right message for a brand that already owns the category.

Wonderful Pistachios – for a brand that is trying to make hay in a highly commoditized category, Wonderful Pistachios made a strong statement for themselves with two :15s wrapped around the H&M David Beckham spot. They did a great job of getting out of the way, and letting Colbert be Colbert. Especially poking fun at themselves about a “lack of branding.” Really fun, really light, and memorably goofy.

DOUBLE GRINS:
T-Mobile’s Tim Tebow spots were absolutely hilarious, and I thought the most on-target/on-focus advertising of the night. Perfect symmetry between his situation (a national figure without a contract) and their basic brand position (mobile network service with no contract necessary.) He’s a good sport (yep, another pun) for poking fun at himself, the ads had high production and camp value, and I think this was a touchdown. (Ugh, that was shameless.)

Doritos brought high value humor to a crop of commercials that were otherwise meh. Add the fact that the spots were created by contest entrants, and you add a level of intrigue. Congratulations to Ryan Thomas Anderson for the winning entry and the $1 million prize. A second level of kudos to Doritos for matching good advertising with strong social activation, and (you may have missed this) an absolutely cool in-stadium activation: recordSetter got 30 people to don orange ponchos to create “the world’s largest human Dorito.” Pretty effing cool.

BIGGEST GRIN:
Chrysler 200 with Bob Dylan
So this was one of the (very few) spots that was not leaked or teased prior to the game, and it really paid off. Chrysler has embraced Detroit/Americana as a stand-in for the brand, and they have wrapped a powerful message around it. (Remember Clint Eastwood’s “halftime in America” ad? And the Paul Harvey “God made a farmer ad from last year for Dodge?” Yeah, same idea.)

They encapsulate this idea in the statement “Detroit made cars. And cars made America.” Overly patriotic? Sure. A tad pandering? Maybe. But powerful advertising? You bet your ass.

The best part is the finale of the 2:00 triumph, (delivered incredibly by a surprisingly articulate and pointed Bob Dylan,) with this: “Let Germany brew your beer. Let Switzerland make your watches. Let Asia assemble your phones.” Dramatic pause. Cut to Dylan in a pool hall talking directly into camera. “We. Will build. Your car.” Touchdown. Two point conversion. Game over. (Yeah. I went there.)

And now for the GROANS.

WTF GROAN:
Maserati introduces its new Ghibli sedan to America with an overly produced spot about “unleashing monsters” or something. Sure, I get that you can make a “big splash” with a Super Bowl ad…but wasn’t there ANYONE in the room saying “this might not be the best media buy?” And who named “Ghibli?”  If you’re going to introduce a “more approachable” brand extension (the Ghibli starts around $67,000) to an otherwise unattainable line, shouldn’t the spot be more, um, approachable?

SLOW GROANS:
Kia takes a target demographic couple on a spin through the Matrix with Laurence Fishburne in full Morpheus mode. Um, what? Or, rather, why?

Bud Light – Now here’s an instance where the social media leadup was better than the ads themselves. Bud Light’s three and a half minute brand film around the “up for whatever theme” was great. The two spots that got edited out of it…a little disjointed.

Beats Music Service introduces its “we’re better than Pandora” intuitive music service. Sounds like a cool idea. They made a nice spot, riffing on the Goldilocks folktale. Except they chose Ellen DeGeneres. Hmmm…is SHE the target? (Highly doubtful.) Is she RIGHT as being appealing to what we would imagine the target to be? (Still no.) So…why Ellen?

BIGGEST GROAN:
AUDI just completely missed the mark this year with “Doberhuahua.” After such an incredible showing last year with their “prom” spot, they go for the dopey CGI-laden humor trick of a Doberman cross-bred with a Chihuahua. They took their potshots at sappiness with knocks at kennel shows and Sarah McLachlan, and tried to wrap this around the idea that “compromise is scary.” It is. Especially in advertising.

End notes: Other hits and misses…
GoDaddy tried to capitalize on the “real time marketing” concept with a spot where a woman (Gwen) quits her job on live television. Interesting. And better than that gross makeout spot they ran last year. Wheeeew!

H&M’s ad with David Beckham was the first to be truly interactive…for a limited few. Turns out, if you have a Samsung SmartTV, you could have ordered product live through your television. Great strategy for the 327 people who actually own that tv.

Volkswagen’s “Wings” ad starts out as a really smart quality claim. Dad tells daughter that every time a Volkswagen hits 100,000 miles, a Volkswagen engineer gets his wings. Cut to German factory, where white-lab-coat-wearing engineers start sprouting wings. Funny concept, well executed. Major problem with this spot: NO FEMALE ENGINEERS. Not a one. Except that young lady in the elevator who slaps the other engineer. Wrong message to send to the world’s young girls, Volkswagen.

Until next year – keep grinning!

This article first appeared on Technorati.

What were YOUR favorite spots? Post in the comments below.