People who follow technology even casually (you know those people; they’re the kind who follow links from Twitter and Facebook to blog posts) tend to pay attention to advertisements for cell phones and cell phone carriers. It’s a rapidly changing market, and the attempts to one-up the competition often lead to fun commercials. A few months ago, Verizon Wireless opted to attack AT&T and the iPhone by focusing on the same network effects that Apple touted in its “There’s an App for That” campaign. In this case, Verizon targeted AT&T’s more narrow 3G network coverage, latching onto consumer sentiment about AT&T’s poorer service quality. The message is pretty clear: having a phone with all the bells and whistles isn’t a great help if you don’t have a good network connection. Even their tagline, “There’s a Map for That”, was clearly a play off of the iPhone campaign.
Frankly, this is a brilliant play on the competitor’s tagline and excellent positioning. I remember using “there’s a map for that” to talk smack to friends on a car ride in rural New York state when their iPhones had no signal and I was still getting 3G on my Blackberry using Verizon. However, I’m not as in love with the commercials that followed that just use the AT&T map as a sight gag (e.g., the iPhone island of misfit toys commercial), as that doesn’t challenge the viewer’s mind in the same way.
AT&T’s initial response clearly came from its legal department and not its marketing department. They tried to force Verizon to stop airing the campaign in court, but a judge denied the move. Although consumers may misunderstand the ad, thinking that the AT&T 3G map represents all of their service area and not just their high speed network, it’s not intentionally misleading. It took AT&T a while to come up with a commercial that tried to challenge the positioning of the services, but I’ve seen a pair of commercials lately that do just that.
Compare the orange coverage area in the AT&T ad to the blue coverage area in the Verizon ad. AT&T is showing its full coverage area (2G & 3G), but that’s not the most important way that they’re changing the subject of the discussion. Where Verizon Wireless is focusing on geography, AT&T is focusing on demography. They’re advertising whom they cover instead of where. Does this silence Verizon’s argument? I think not: cell phones aren’t stationary, so users move around through areas of strong and weak signal. I think that the new ads do create dissonance in the minds of the viewers and diminish the power of the Verizon ads, as many consumers will just remember the last map that they saw. They don’t need to argue that AT&T has better coverage than Verizon, they just need to convince people that the two service’s aren’t that disparate. If people don’t care so much about 3G coverage, then they won’t be scared off from buying an iPhone from a potential weakness. In other words, AT&T has been doing its SWOT analysis, and it’s been working to mitigate a threat.
One thing that these ads don’t work to eliminate, however, is the line “there’s a map for that.” When the competition on coverage takes a break, consumers watching new iPhone commercials will still have the dissonance of the two taglines in mind. This demonstrates another threat to AT&T. If and when the iPhone is no longer an AT&T exclusive, how many customers will want to have both apps and maps and look to switch carriers? The longer AT&T lets customers remember Verizon’s tagline, the more danger they may someday face.