Cingular's coverage area is awash in messages that proclaim the superiority of its cellular service over all others. The claims are big and bold: "The fewest dropped calls of any wireless carrier." "More bars in more places." Cingular gives no quarter to the competition and leaves no room for doubt.
At first blush, it's a gutsy approach. Nowadays, few marketers focus so much on performance, much less tout it in such uncompromising terms. Today's conventional advertising wisdom has it that the risks of disappointing customers or provoking challenges from competitors are powerful deterrents. Yet Cingular is clearly undeterred.
These chest-pounding messages are strategically smarter than meets the eye. Like their competitors, the marketing folks at Cingular know full well they have consumers over a barrel. The difference is that they're using the stickiness of customers to competitive advantage.
As long-standing Cingular customers, we know from personal experience that Cingular's service is far from flawless and like most people, we've often thought about switching. But doing so would entail canceling contracts, paying penalties, and in many cases, buying and setting up new equipment.
Therein lies the brilliance of Cingular's campaign. Its marketers fully appreciate that "test-driving" a competitive service is too costly to be a viable option. Which, in turn, means there's no incentive for consumers to test the validity of Cingular's performance claims.
That's exactly what makes the campaign so effective, both for retention and acquisition. Cingular customers experience their share of dropped calls, but they're led to believe that Verizon or t-Mobile users must have it worse. And prospects are left with the nagging feeling that there may indeed be more bars on the Cingular side. With no way to test the veracity of Cingular's claims, then, they have no option but to take them at face value or dismiss them wholesale.
Outdoor advertising is the ideal medium to disseminate this message because it calls for bold and simple statements and there's no room for, nor expectation of, an explanation or disclaimer. Furthermore, the odds of reaching a customer or prospect while they are actually engaged in using the product are better with outdoor than with any other medium except, perhaps, the cell phone itself.
Cingular runs print ads that include support for its superiority claims. Survey results may not make for exciting reading, but they deliver the kind of depth print calls for.
Where does that leave the competition? Flailing, it would seem. Verizon Wireless' "It's the Network" campaign promises reliability, but pales in specificity and persuasiveness next to Cingular's performance-oriented claims. Sprint's "Yes You Can" effort comes across as one of those campaigns you run when you have nothing to say. And t-Mobile is still focused on offering special calling plans. Besides, who knows what its tagline, "Get More From Life," is supposed to mean?
The wireless carrier wars are sure to be long and hard-fought. More mergers and acquisitions could dramatically change the competitive landscape, so it's impossible to predict a victor. But if Cingular continues to stress performance, and hold itself and its employees publicly accountable to consistently deliver on benefits promised, then we wouldn't bet against the little orange guy.
Unless, of course, Cingular abandons its brand name and rebrands as AT&T. In that case, all bets are off.