First Words: The New Language of Wireless Marketing

Posted on April 16, 2015

Control language and you can maintain order. This observation was made by George Orwell in his cautionary novel 1984 — a year in which, as it happened in reality, the first sale of a handheld mobile phone to a US consumer was made. The corollary to this theory (and Big Brother’s great fear) is that, if you free language, you will create an environment in which change becomes inevitable.

More than 30 years since that first Motorola DynaTAC was snapped up for almost $4,000 (closer to $10,000 in today’s money) Orwell’s insight is being neatly illustrated in the US mobile market. The language being used to speak to the end user is evolving thanks to a challenge being mounted against incumbent operators by a wave of newcomers keen to change the conversation.

Historically, incumbent mobile operators have relied heavily on the network in their messaging, in particular like-for-like network comparisons. By keeping the discussion centred on their networks they ensured users could only decide on their service provider by comparing the things that the operators wanted them to compare. It made sense in a world where the service and the network were one and the same.

It remains a favoured strategy, particularly among market leaders. Go to the Verizon Mobile website today and you’ll see prominent text that announces “the best network and coverage” and “America’s largest 4G LTE network”. A recent string of TV ads from AT&T, meanwhile, featured a comic double act called The Network Experts, each ad ending with a tagline heralding “the fastest, most reliable 4G LTE network.”

As incumbents with market share and margins to protect, neither AT&T nor Verizon gives pricing a great deal of prominence on their website home pages. The language of price has traditionally been the weapon of challengers. Sprint and T-Mobile, both challengers despite their size, play the price card far more conspicuously as they urge consumers to churn to their own services.

But the really dramatic shift in messaging is coming from a band of start-ups collectively characterized as the Wi-Fi First community. These players — Scratch Wireless, Republic Wireless, FreedomPop, Freewheel Wi-Fi, and TextPlus among them — approach connectivity from a very different position. Without network investments to recoup, or an existing position to protect, they are free to speak to the customer in new terms, rather than those of the establishment.

Their names, chosen to evoke notions of release, independence, and alternative thinking, reflect consumer messages which are a radical departure from the norm. And the language they’re using threatens very much to disrupt the order of the U.S. mobile market.

Price is a significant part of these messages, no doubt, and core to their appeal. FreedomPop offers customers “the world’s first 100% free mobile phone service.” Scratch tells them “wireless should be free” and that they’ll “never have to pay a penny”. TextPlus reminds users that “phone companies charge you crazy prices for their towers even when you have other networks available.”

Sprint, T-Mobile and the tier-two US operators going after AT&T and Verizon may push price harder than the leading pair but their messages are a world away from what this new batch of connectivity providers is telling the market, which is essentially that connectivity today is vastly over-priced.

More importantly, and despite all the language they’re using to attack establishment pricing structures, they are talking to consumers about much more than spend. They speak to convenience and simplicity, they prioritize the experience and not the technology — they challenge the accepted definitions and boundaries of connectivity service.

“Smartphone service shouldn’t give you a headache,” says Republic, adding: “Let’s work together to get you better connected.” FreeWheel sets out to puncture the very aspirations of mobility, saying: “When first introduced, the promise of the cell phone was all about freedom. Then came the 2 year contracts. The hidden fees, surcharges and taxes. The complicated plans that always seem to change.”

Scratch sets up its explicit Wi-Fi First messaging by telling customers, “you already have the connectivity,” a sentiment echoed by TextPlus: “Why not choose the phone company that uses the network you already own?”

They look, think and sound different — and they’re addressing a market they believe thinks differently from the establishment; one FreeWheel has christened “Generation Wi-Fi”.

They’re a bit like the bands who brought punk to a generation that wanted a cultural movement of its own in the 1970s. Punk proved the existence of a latent demand for change among a certain demographic. It proved that established offerings were not speaking that segment’s language. Wi-Fi First service providers are making the same bet, hence the cultural distance they are putting between themselves and the incumbents. But their intent — to win and retain customers — is the same as the establishment players they’re challenging. The punks still wanted to sell records, after all…

These are all comparatively small players, of course; their customer numbers wouldn’t make a dent in the databases of any of the leading U.S. mobile carriers. But here’s the thing: small movements can effect great change. Punk only lasted two years, but four decades on it remains hugely influential.

Why? Because it was assimilated. It was absorbed into a wider cultural and musical mix. It became one of many influences, albeit a powerful one, in a richer, blended world.

I think the same thing is going to happen with Wi-Fi First. Some of these new players might win big — but some may falter and some may be assimilated through acquisition (Freewheel is already part of Cablevision, of course). But the influence of the message they are delivering — to a market segment, let’s remember, who will be consumers of wireless connectivity services for decades to come — will be felt throughout the industry for a long time. Their language will last.

Wi-Fi First is not going to destroy cellular. But I believe that it will shape the wider market by forcing it to evolve towards a richer, blended wireless service environment that, at Devicescape, we call Connectivity First. Everything these players are doing to promote the value of service, simplicity and experience over technology will benefit users, as the established mobile community absorbs the thinking that Wi-Fi First players are introducing.

We’ve come an awfully long way since that first phone was sold in 1984. And while George Orwell might have failed to predict the DynaTAC, never mind the rise and fall of Punk, he was certainly right about the power of language to disrupt the established order.