The New New Phone Company?
By Michael Mattis, Wed May 23 00:00:00 GMT 2001

It?s easy to replace worn out machinery, but worn out ideas die hard.

Call it the Ernestine phenomenon. Readers in the US – those of a us of a certain age anyway – will remember Ernestine as the snorting, nasally telephone operator character that actress and comedienne Lily Tomlin portrayed on the 1960s TV comedy Laugh In .

Ernestine, who worked at "the Phone Company," made sport of listening in on phone company customers’ private conversations and making snide remarks about them. Funny but scary.

With lines like "Here at the Phone Company, we serve all kinds of people; from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth..." and "We're the phone company. We don't care, we don't have to," Tomlin’s character epitomized the damn-your-eyes attitude of the monopoly-owned US phone company in the Bell era.

The1980s in the US ushered in deregulation and the mandated break up of "Ma" Bell, giving the new phone companies’ – the so called Baby Bells – customers choices in service unheard of at any other time or in any other country, in theory at least.

Many European and Asia-Pacific nations followed suit, privatizing their state-owned phone companies and opening the door to multi-national operators to do business.

All about you, Baby!

Now, as mobile telephony allows phone company customers to roam around their calling areas, and as mobile data technologies like WAP, SMS, and CDPD bring groovy new communication and information services online, the new phone companies – in many countries the products of marriages between local phone companies and/or long-distance providers – are on the surface beginning to retool themselves, to get hip, to realize that what happens between them and their customers is a relationship, one that customers can terminate at any time.

With a nod to Michael Lewis, the author of the best-selling Silicon Valley history, The New New Thing , call these new providers the new new phone company . The wireless carriers especially are in a big push to rebrand themselves, to get a new attitude, trying to reflect their customers’ migratory, get-up-and-go lifestyles. The new new phone company wants you to know that it’s big but personable, flexible yet dependable, splashy but unpretentious, and all about you, Baby .

Cingular Wireless and Verizon in the US, and Europe’s Vizzavi are the boldest examples. Cingular, for example, a product of a joint venture between SBC Communications and Bell South, sprung onto the scene with a deluge of pricey TV ads launched during the American Football Conference National League playoff in January. Its "What do you have to say?" slogan is designed to show that Cingular Wireless is much more than a mere mobile phone service.

Verizon (AT&T/GTE) with its victory symbol and "live life the way you want" slogan, and Vizzavi (Vodafone/Vivendi), which "brings the wireless world to you," too, attempt to transform your mobile phone service into something more. Your handy is no longer an inanimate device. Now it’s your plastic pal who’s fun to be with (to steal a phrase from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ).

The sweet spot

The method behind the new new phone companies’ madness is manifold, but can be boiled down to a few simple facts. Traditionally, phone companies have been in the business of selling local connections and long distance time to an essentially locked-in customer base. That was easy when they had a government sanctioned or sponsored monopoly.

Now wireless phone companies sell airtime and, increasingly, data services. Connection time – it hardly needs pointing out – has become commoditized, the price of which will only fall further over time. The new new phone companies are competing with one another – as well as with promising new technologies like voice over IP and wireless VOIP – for your attention and your pennies harder than ever.

Pending upgrades in these carriers networks – the introduction of global packet radio service (GPRS), high speed circuit switched data (HSCSD), and wide-band code-division multiple access (W-CDMA) – to 3G technologies, offers phone companies the opportunity to place themselves at the very center of information transfer and transactions between service providers and consumers.

The center is undoubtedly the best place to shave a percentage off nearly every transaction. To get into that sweet spot, they’re ratcheting up their marketing campaigns, promising unlimited access to friends, information, and services.

The new tantalizing look

The wireless carriers in particular are looking at ways to reinvent their image. I am a customer of one of these new new wireless phone companies here in California. I’m definitely in their target demographic – in fact, I’m so darn hip to mobility I don’t even have a wireline phone anymore.

The problem is, so far, they’ve changed the way they look, but not the way they feel. For example, I get a bill every month, with the trendy new logo and a very attractive new color scheme on every page. But it’s still just a phone bill, full of Byzantine codes and numbers I don’t understand and that I’m not meant to. Despite the slick new gloss, it might as well still be "Ma" Bell - my experience as a user hasn’t changed much, nor has my relationship with the brand.

"Marketing used to be about putting a thin veneer over a company," says Tessa Graham, vice president of market research firm, Red Sheriff. "And that’s basically all these companies have done."

San Francisco-based independent brand consultant, John Baglivo, says that, when building new technology brands, the medium often means more than the message.

"The messages being delivered are only so important," he says, "People’s experience of the brand needs to be consistent across all touchpoints – marketing messages, your phone bill, your experience with customer service representative, and the experience of the service itself."

Seamless experience

Like me, Graham is also a new new phone company customer. As a professional who travels constantly from continent to continent in her job, her experience of the new brand has been less than stellar.

In order for Graham to roam or make calls to countries outside the US from her mobile phone, she had to use her phone for a full month and then show the carrier a utility bill – of all things – presumably to show she has a permanent residence and won’t skip out on her bill.

Such a requirement seems very much at odds with the super hip mobile global info-village the company is pushing in its marketing messages. "They haven’t opened up my world for me, they’ve just changed their name," she comments wryly.

A brand, Baglivo continues, "is an organizational thing that’s got to be driven by the leadership of the company; they’ve got to believe it and live it, and then drive it down through the rest of the company."

For that end-to-end brand experience, both Baglivo and Graham cite Starbucks Coffee and Harley-Davidson Motorcycles as two of the finest examples. "You’d know you’re at a Starbucks even if you never saw the sign outside," notes Graham. "From the smell of the product to the way you’re treated as a customer – Starbucks is a complete experience, consistent across all touchpoints."

Show me you care

If the new new phone companies truly want to position themselves at the center of our worlds, she says, they should take their cues from these off-line, low-tech brands, old economy brands and show that, yes, they really do care about your experience. "If they want to be at the center of our world, then they should put us at the center of theirs," she says, "The experience is the brand,"

Maybe we’re being too harsh on the phone company. Like many companies, they’re doing away with their legacy systems. The problem is that legacy people with legacy attitudes toward brand building and customer relationships are still in charge. It’s easy to replace worn out machinery, but worn out ideas die hard. But then what can we expect, as Ernestine used to snort, "$12.50 a month doesn’t buy perfection."

Michael Mattis is a mobile solutions specialist in the San Francisco, Calif. offices of Razorfish, Inc.