Three years ago, few would have predicted T-Mobile would be the talk of the wireless industry. Holding a secure fourth-place position in a four-horse race, T-Mobile was defined by little more than its signature magenta color and possibilities for takeover by one of its larger competitors. T-Mobile was “America’s fastest shrinking wireless company,” admits one executive.
But a failed merger and an executive change later, the Seattle-based company has become the thorn in the wireless industry’s side, giving voice to widespread consumer resentment toward their providers, and vowing to act differently. Led by its CEO’s direct (and sometimes profane) Twitter feed, T-Mobile redubbed itself the “Uncarrier,” offering transparency and initiatives meant to ease consumer pain points throughout the industry.
What’s most amazing is the strategy is working. Since the second quarter of 2013, T-Mobile has added 10 million new customers (with 2.3 million coming in the third quarter of 2014 alone) and implemented no-contract plans, device upgrade programs and free music streaming programs that have forced competitors to follow suit. The company has turned its small size to its advantage, being more nimble and proactive with both its business and communications. Indeed, T-Mobile is an easy choice to be Mediapost’s Marketer of the Year.
“T-Mobile was dying. For years, they couldn’t hit the nail on the head,” says independent telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan. “Their success is 100% due to [CEO] John Legere and the executives he brought in.”
“It all starts with a simple philosophy to put the consumer at the center of everything we did, and that choice of saying we’re going to change wireless for the better,” says Andrew Sherrard, T-Mobile’s senior vice president of marketing. “We said we need to come [at marketing] this way because the rules are not written in our favor and they’re not written for the consumer.”
Of course, it’s one thing to say you’re going to change, and it’s another to actually do it. Thanks to the rise of social media, identifying the places where customers are having issues with an industry is unbelievably simple (particularly in an industry as troubled as telecommunications), Sherrard says. And showing your responses to their pain points is even easier.
“It’s really easy to find the pain points. The hard part is deciding you’re going to act in a fundamentally different way and you’re going to try to solve them as completely as we can,” Sherrard says. “The rise in social has made it a tremendously different landscape. It allows you to have an incredible amount of reach.”
Thus the rise of social media-powered initiatives such as composing a break-up letter that consumers could write to their current carriers explaining their switch to T-Mobile; a “seven-night” stand, encouraging consumers to cheat on their current carrier by trying out T-Mobile’s network and Facebook quizzes that ask, “What kind of Rebel are you?”
“We’re a maverick on a mission here. If we’re going to tweak the big guys, we’re going to have to be provocative, and we need to be authentic,” Sherrard says. “We see a real potential in being able to leverage earned and social media with influencers.”
But by far the most effective tool in T-Mobile’s strategy is its outspoken and public CEO John Legere. Over the past year, Legere has made it his mission to be the most public proponent of T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” positioning. Whether it’s getting thrown out of AT&T’s party at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas or needling a competitor via Twitter (Pointing to a report that Sprint was the worst-performing network in Kansas City, Legere commented: “One day, I have faith that @sprint will make its hometown proud w/ a great network. That one day is not today.”), Legere has become identified with his company as an anti-establishment voice within the wireless industry. (And one of the most heeded. Fierce Wireless named Legere the second-most powerful person in the telecom industry, behind only FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.)
“John is an incredibly perfect outspoken spokesperson for the brand, not shying away from the fight and calling it like it is,” Sherrard says. “John is willing to [get out there] with colorful language and provocative statements and is willing to shake things up and get noticed.”
A former CEO of Global Crossing, Legere wasn’t known for his maverick style before joining T-Mobile in 2012. But the chance to lead a scrappy upstart gave him the chance to let his hair down (almost literally), trade his sport coat for a leather jacket and unleash a new public persona. In doing so, he amassed more Twitter followers than the brand itself (726,000 vs. 520,000), turning his voice into a megaphone for the brand.
“He makes [our communications] more effective. He’s provocative and fun and funny,” Sherrard says. “[The maverick personality has] always been there and everything has come from his point of view. This feels very natural for him.”
Though many have publicly wondered what T-Mobile’s endgame is with its Uncarrier strategy (is the company beefing itself up for another acquisition) or what happens when other, larger competitors begin to follow suit with their own industry-bucking moves, Sherrard says the company is committed to its direction.
“We’re never going to outspend Verizon, but we’re going to outthink them,” Sherrard says. “We have a much more compelling story than those other guys do.”