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.

Now That’s Punny!

If you love advertising, you probably love good writing. Because, after all (with all due respect to the wonderful art directors and designers out there,) the creative side of advertising is, ultimately, a writer’s business.

If you are a fan of advertising history, as I am, you’ll know that, in the early days, clients went to ad agencies for one thing: superior writing. This was, of course, in the age before television, (when eye candy became the commodity of promotion.) But for more than 50 years, newspaper, magazine and radio – and the writers who developed all that copy – ruled the ad world.

In today’s more outsized, outpaced, hypertargeted marketing world, the ad agent has a much more robust toolset. Beyond words, there are pictures, video, and moving pixels virtually everywhere.   (See what I did there?) But if you want to reach consumers, it’s still a few well-orchestrated words that people will ultimately remember.

These days, it seems we’re writing for a different reason. It’s not so much for memorability as much as it is for virality. I would surmise that social media has pervaded the creative process so much that creative teams in agencies large and small sit in meetings and think less “how can we connect to consumers?” and more “what do you think will get shared?”

Let’s look at a few ads that are playing with words, using a sort of snarky pun game to gain some attention.

Sheets Energy Strips started their brand off with some word play in 2011. “I’ve taken a Sheet right in the cockpit.” Just what you want to hear from your pilot, eh?

 

Kmart sought to re-establish itself as a more current brand with some pun humor on their famous “ship my pants” spot from 2013. And whether or not you like this kind of humor, you might actually shit your pants when you hear that it has more than 21 million views on YouTube.

 

Verizon is out with a new campaign (and a corresponding hashtag, I might add) featuring the ever-so-homophonic “half-fast” meme for its Internet products with a “Speed Match” guarantee. Here’s a holiday spot:

 

If you look closely at the examples above, you’ll see an evolution of the form. Sheets simply did a play on words for the sake of it. But there was no real value to the consumer. (There WAS a value to the brand, in that the meme was a good way for consumers to remember the brand name.)

Kmart did a better marketing job, in that they had the fun, and at least communicated an important feature: that you can shop online at Kmart.com, and that they would ship your pants, or your drawers, or your bed. For FREE.

But Verizon seems to be going a step further, and trying to tie in a benefit. Or at least a negatively associated benefit. By playing on the half-fast theme, they’re communicating the important feature of upload speed that matches download speed. (And taking a shot a the “cable connection” competitors who don’t deliver matching speed.) But with the meme, they’re highlighting all the things that you CAN’T do with half-fast connections, like “I’ll be half fast when I’m sharing my photos,” and “I’ll be half fast updating my blog.” And although they’re negatively associated, those are still functional benefits, and they go a lot further with consumers.

Which is why it strikes me that more campaigns aren’t harnessing the power of language to its fullest potential. I see a lot of great work out there – meaning great ideas – but we rarely see a willingness to play with language the way we once did. Where’s the “Snap! Crackle! Pop!” or the “Leggo my Egg’o” lines for breakfast foods? Where’s the “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz?” And heck “Where’s the Beef?”

If you’re going to go for some fun with your next ad, have at it. But note the conventions and craft it to take it up the ladder and deliver some actual value – like a benefit – to the consumer while you have your pun and eat it too…or something like that.

Three cheers for Verizon.

I LOVE the new spot that Verizon has launched to introduce its marriage with iPhone 4.  It’s honest.  It’s simple.  And it resonates in a way that many other strategies may have missed.

For a long time, Verizon has been poking fun at iPhone, mostly because of its alliance with the AT&T network.  By mocking the rival network, it invariably knocked the phone.  The best example of this is the “Island of Misfit Toys” spot it ran more than a year ago.  Funny.  And smart.  And a great way to make the points about the phones you CAN get on Verizon’s network.

But now, the hatchet is buried.  The bygones have gone by.  And the tone is spot-on.  Using a series of images of clocks ticking and fingers tapping and eyes shifting, the spot creates tension focused on “waiting.”  The voiceover begins by addressing the audience directly: “To our millions of customers, who never stopped believing this day would come…THANK YOU.”

Cheer #1:  Good strategic approach.
How smart is this strategy?  No attacks on the “other” network.  No knocks on the device.  No more touting OTHER phone’s app capacities.  Just a simple, singular message that affectionately bonds the two companies.

Cheer #2:  Truthfulness.
The spot gets honest, and does it elegantly.  It essentially ADMITS that (despite its efforts to sell you a zillion other devices,) Verizon customers have wanted THIS phone all along.

Cheer #3:  Bonding with customers.
What’s more impactful than saying “thank you?’  How often do big corporations do that, especially when the context is “thank you for being patient, while we tried to shove other things down your throat for the last three years.”

Bonus Cheer:  Create anticipation.
By putting the forthcoming launch date as a super, the spot creates anticipation.  This is “appointment advertising” at its simple and singular (ooh, a pun!) best.