"Cingular Can't Sell Jack"
I thought Cingular was a cellular telephone company. Now I'm not so sure. We see people painting, playing guitars, and dancing across our televisions in the name of self-expression through Cingular. I'm more confused now than ever about what Cingular is trying to sell me.
The key question is, if Cingular is promising us self-expression, how does Cingular actually make self-expression more possible? That question doesn't seem to have an answer.
Cingular is faced with a daunting marketing challenge. Created by the merger of SBC Communications and BellSouth Mobility, this new entity needs to gain recognition for their new name and establish their position in the fast-moving world of wireless. Simultaneously, they need to deal positively with the legacies left behind from the many brands associated with the two parent organizations. They were in need of a strategy to solve this dilemma. It appears that they still are.
Cingular should be commended for adopting a cause, which they describe as everyone's right to express themselves. Causal Marketing is a powerful way to define focus for an organization. A cause gives employees something to rally around, and makes it easier to make decisions affecting the customer. Decisions for employees at Cingular get simple; if it supports customers' self-expression, do it. If it doesn't, don't. But customers really don't care about the company's cause. They want to know, "What's in it for me?" What Cingular needs to do is say, "We're the only company that can support your desire for self-expression in the wireless realm, and here are the specific ways that we're going to do that, that allow us to make that claim." From there, they need to talk about the specific programs that they have that enable self-expression in a manner or in a combination that their competitors can't do. In a January 13 news release, Cingular President and CEO Stephen Carter stated, "We will emphasize the importance of self-expression. We're not about technology - we're about our customers, their communication, - about celebrating life." Yet technology IS all they sell.
The problem is that Cingular doesn't connect what they claim their audience wants with what they can truly deliver. The consumers and the business people who thought they might need cellular service are now offered the "bonus" of self-expression, but nowhere does Cingular explain how to get it. This is an important deficit in the realm of advertising, because a company doesn't have long to prove that it can keep the promises it makes. Where do I sign up for the dance lessons I saw in their commercial? Where do I learn to play the guitar like the one with the Cingular logo they show on TV? Those are forms of self-expression I can relate to. How will Cingular help me realize that promise?
That's the big disconnect (no pun intended). Aspirations and reality are not the same. Cingular hasn't earned the right to be in any way associated with self-expression. It's not clear how Cingular can help me with self-expression any better than any other wireless solution. The closest they've come to linking their self-expression promise to their wireless offerings is the TV commercial with Jack bouncing on a vibrating bed. I can relate running out of minutes on the bed to running out of minutes in my cell phone plan. And, yes, my self-expression is limited when I run out of minutes during the month. Maybe we could we see more ads like this, please? In it, Jack has finally found some relevance.
Cingular thought they were smart when they decided to take a stand for self-expression. My guess is that they purposely chose a position that everyone would agree with, so that they wouldn't alienate anybody. This really is not taking a stand at all. It's like saying, "We believe in food!" Or, "We're for clean air." Who could argue with that? As a result, by attempting to appeal to everybody, in the end they appeal to nobody. By staking a claim to the entire market, they will own no market at all. When it comes to what they actually offer their customers, they are no different from any other wireless provider.
Self-expression is a worthy cause to be used internally to build a focused and cohesive organization, but if they continue to make that the key to their marketing campaign, their campaign is doomed. Over time they may be able to develop a culture that attracts employees with a personal passion for promoting self-expression, and this culture and those employees may be able to develop the products and programs that Cingular is laying claim to today. But before that happens, the public will get tired of the lies.
Perhaps it's already too late. A dozen MBA graduate students, ages 25 to 50, at an Atlanta-area college were recently polled on various facets of the Cingular campaign. When they were shown Jack, the Cingular logo, and asked what they thought about it, they said, "Nothing." "Stupid." "What is it supposed to be?" After Cingular was mentioned, 60% could relate the symbol to Cingular - a pretty good awareness number. When asked what they thought about Jack's message, the grad students said, "I don't believe the statement of "my way". "I have recently shopped at a BellSouth store, and it was a mess." "I don't believe the freedom statement." "I don't believe Jack will let me do it my way." "It's about the minutes, stupid!" Funny - no one mentioned self-expression at all!
It wouldn't be hard for them to turn their proclamation of self-expression into a real market position if they had the guts. For instance, they could start promoting - tomorrow - the privilege of self-expression, and talk about ways to honor the freedom that we have to express ourselves here in the United States.
But this would also require them to take a stand about abuses of that privilege. For instance, about how driving while talking on a cellular phone infringes on the others' rights; self-expression shouldn't endanger others. Okay, that didn't hurt much, but they'll have to take more controversial stances for anybody to pay attention to them. For example, advocating the avoidance of rude behavior like accepting cellular phone calls in movies, or letting cell phones ring in meetings, or creating e-mail messages while others are talking or presenting. What about talking on a cell phone in a restaurant? If they really understand their customers as well as Jack wants us to believe, they would be able to make the case for how (and how not) to embrace the privilege of self expression. A large population of wireless users may want to do business with a company that was willing to take a stand on that set of beliefs.
Interestingly, Cingular has launched a separate "Be Sensible" campaign to combat bad etiquette and promote safety. Apparently they are partnering with organizations to distribute "Be Sensible" icons to remind people to turn phones off or set them to vibrate in museums and theaters. They have the right idea and the tools; it wouldn't take much to make "Be Sensible" an integrated part of a Privilege of Self-Expression position.
Putting the privilege of self-expression in an ad campaign could be communicated in many relevant and compelling ways. Cingular could show people talking on a cellular phone to share emotional moments with loved ones. Jack could show embarrassing moments when cell phones ring in restaurants, movies, and in church. They can demonstrate the perils of talking while driving. They could take a stand for courtesy, for graceful, non-selfish acts of vocal expression. They could even make statements regarding abusing the privilege of self-expression through non-vocal means, such as graffiti and rude gestures. They could support non-vocal expression by donating money to the arts and sponsoring the Special Olympics (which they do, to their credit. They just haven't linked it to self-expression).
Of course, that would also alienate a segment of potential wireless customers who don't see anything wrong with "multi-tasking" during business presentations, or talking on their cell phone in the theater (you know who you are). However, excluding a portion of the market is too painful an idea for most corporate executives to even think about, much less say out loud in a group of their peers.
So the executives at Cingular will continue to pat themselves on the back for the clever ads and the tremendous awareness levels they're achieving. When stakeholders finally realize that the customer base isn't growing, the self-expression campaign will be killed. Cingular will fire BBDO, their ad agency and soon-to-be scapegoat, and blame the failure on them, even though Cingular is ultimately responsible for the strategy. A year from now, Jack's commercials will be remembered one of those cute campaigns that were deemed ineffective because they did not sell more products. And Cingular will revert to some middle of the road claims based on coverage and pricing, and return to the ranks of the "me, too" wireless provider.
It's too bad Cingular can't sell Jack. If Cingular knew Jack and the rest of their target customers a little better, they might be able to sell us something they can actually deliver.
© 2001 Paul Johnson and Chris Lambrecht
Paul Johnson is Principal of Panache and Systems, Atlanta Georgia
Chris and Paul are Founding Partners of Marketing Consulting of Atlanta, marketingconsultancy.org.