what at&t could learn from mcdonald’s

I usually try to keep my critiques to categories I’ve worked in, primarily because I think it’s irresponsible for me to comment on what works and what doesn’t when I have little basis for my assessment other than being a consumer.  So I initially demurred when some folks have asked for my POV on AT&T’s new campaign, Rethink Possible.att_logo

But then I started wondering whether my expertise in other categories might actually shed some light on the issue — that’s when I realized that there are some instructive parallels between AT&T and fast food chains.  And while AT&T has adopted some of what drives fast feeders’ success, there are a couple of important lessons it might want to learn.

Before I get into those takeaways, though, I do feel the need to address two of the more inane criticisms I’ve heard about AT&T’s new effort:

To those protesting the incorrect grammar of the tagline, Rethink Possible, I say, “get over it.”  It’s important to note that I consider myself somewhat of a verbifore, or at least a lover of language (R.I.P. William Safire), so I don’t take grammatical errors lightly.  But I do understand and value the use of creative license, and I see this tagline as just that – a creatively-worded phrase that is meant to evoke and provoke by the use of seemingly grammatical incorrectness.

The folks who take issue with such license are probably the same ones who would criticize the highly successful lines of Apple’s “Think Different” and the California Milk Processor Board’s “Got Milk?” campaigns, so I’m not giving them a lot of credence.

Also people have been critical of reports that AT&T is pursuing this tact in the hopes of becoming a “lifestyle brand.” To some, it seems ludicrous for a telecom company to have such lofty aspirations.  Others reject the idea of any brand promoting a lifestyle.

But the reality is, becoming a lifestyle brand is a common brand development goal – brand managers in automotive, nutritional supplements, apparel, consumer electronics, and fast food — practically every brand I’ve ever worked on – have wanted to be known less for the products they sell than for the lifestyle their products facilitate.  I’m not saying this is right but let’s not be too hard on the folks at AT&T.

telecom and fast food – who knew?!

The telecom and fast food categories are actually quite similar in some respects.  The major brands are targeted to the mass market.  Commoditization is prevalent, as are price wars.  Competitive advertising is the norm.  And purchase/usage is driven as much – if not more — by availability (that is, coverage and hardware in telecom land, penetration and prime locations in fast food land) as it is by any sense of brand loyalty.

With these parallels as a backdrop, it’s clear that brands in both categories need to rise above the frayMcDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympics earlier this year gave it an important reprieve from the tit-for-tat price wars which have been littering the fast food promotional landscape.  Many QSRs are trying to go head to head with Subway’s $5 foot-long offering; others are pushing unbelievably low prices.  But McDonald’s was able to increase its brand appeal with its inspiring and emotionally resonant campaign for the winter competition.

AT&T is making a similar move, abandoning its back-and-forth map and app wars with Verizon and communicating the bigger ideas behind the brand.  They’re getting away from that petty competition and trying to remind people of other factors in the value equation.

AT&T is also smart to consolidate its efforts and promote one brand/one message to all stakeholders.  In telecom and fast food both — where billions of ad dollars are spent each year and priorities among different groups often conflict — the norm is to operate in silos and this leads to message fragmentation.

But AT&T’s Senior VP-Brand Marketing and Advertising Esther Lee is quoted as explaining, “It’s not going to be the old model that there’s brand work, and then there’s consumer work or enterprise work; it’s all ‘Rethink Possible.’”  The singular message route worked well for McDonald’s ever since it launched “I’m lovin’ it.”  The theme and what it stands for has unified diverse product efforts and served as a rallying cry for all of the company’s stakeholders.

lessons yet to be learned

Despite these smart approaches, there are a couple of things AT&T could learn from fast food companies. The first is:  you’ve got to deliver on the basics before you can you credibly promote innovation or image.

New products have become the life blood for many fast food chains, but slow speed of service, unclean facilities, and rude servers quickly take the wind out of the sails of these innovations.  McDonald’s understands this and that’s why they continue to emphasize solid execution amidst their McCafe concept, McWrap Snacks, and other new product introductions.  Mastering the basics is not only the cost of entry into the category – it’s also the cost of compelling innovation.

A lot of the criticism directed at AT&T’s effort is really about the company’s failings in providing basic service. Whether it’s fewer dropped calls, broader coverage, or the ability to tether the iPhone, people want their basic needs met.  People argue that the money the company is spending on the new campaign would be better spent on addressing infrastructure and service issues (an argument I’ve previously made about Microsoft’s lavish ad campaigns.)

I’m not an AT&T customer so I’m not in the best position to judge whether or not such claims are warranted but perhaps perception is more important here anyway.  AT&T must have a base of credibility today in order to present a credible vision for the future.

The second lesson from fast food is related to the first – that is, the battle is fought in the trenches. Fast feeders know that they must win at the store level.  Regardless of the brand image the chain might enjoy, the offer at the restaurant has to compete head to head with the one across the street.

In the same way, AT&T needs to focus on their points of purchase.  Whether it’s retail stores or the company website or VARs, their new brand promise must be delivered at all of these channels.  I haven’t read anything about the company’s efforts in this area and a cursory attempt at shopping on their website didn’t reveal anything different from the norm.  Rethink Possible shouldn’t just be a brand campaign idea – it needs to drive sales at retail as well.  AT&T needs to establish competitive advantage where it really matters – that first moment of truth.

I realize there’s a limit to the relevance of fast food lessons to AT&T – the breadth of usage/applications, the purchase cycle, and the price points are just a few of the significant differences between telecom and fast food.  But I do believe AT&T would do well to embrace the commodity-like nature of their offering and glean appropriate lessons from those who have mastered such competition.

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