Company: T-Mobile USA Inc.
Event: T-Mobile Un-carrier Campaign
Objectives: Rebrand T-Mobile as different from competitors and attract new customers.
Strategy: Stage a series of press and consumer events from March to October 2013 to reveal corporate changes and generate excitement for the brand.
Tactics: Walk members of the press through customer pain points, use bold and colorful presentations to convey T-Mobile's transformation, and host a surprise concert for
Results: Garnered 650,000 social-media impressions, 12,000 news stories, and 4.4 million new customers for T-Mobile during the campaign.
Creative/Production Agency: Jack Morton Worldwide West Coast, www.jackmorton.com
Budget: $5 million or more
onsidering that there are 358 million cellphone accounts in a country with only 317 million people, it's fair to say that the population of the United States has a bit of a love affair going with mobile technology. But according to research by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, there are few things consumers loathe as much as their cellphone service provider – with only airlines, Internet-service companies, and the federal government disliked more.
There is no shortage of squabbles started by unhappy customers, but the din they raised over lengthy contracts, exorbitant international costs, and hefty upgrade fees for phones lost or broken before the end of a contract fell on deaf ears. The biggest companies in the cellphone industry – Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc., Sprint Co., and T-Mobile USA Inc. – all had similar policies and prices in years past, so they could afford to be indifferent. Ironclad contracts locked people with providers for years at a time, and disgruntled consumers who eventually packed their proverbial bags and left found that the next cellphone company relationship was just more of the same.
As the smallest of the big four providers, T-Mobile was seeing its customers lured to bigger competitors who had essentially the same service plans, but fancy marketing and flashy promotions to attract clients. Because it had historically taken the same approach as the others to contracts and policies, nothing differentiated T-Mobile from the pack, and consumers viewed them all with an equal level of disdain. The company had to find a way to put a stop to the slide and position itself as a desirable consort, but execs knew that to do so might mean having to find a different way to do business.
Like a repentant spouse, T-Mobile began by doing something every good partner does: It listened. CEO John Legere had conversations from customer call centers forwarded to him nightly, and he poured through the piles of not-so-flattering email communications from people frustrated with the company. By doing this, Legere learned what the pain points were for people – the things they absolutely hated about doing business with a cellular carrier – and he took it to heart. Using the information, Legere decided how T-Mobile should change its ways, and, in doing so, set itself apart to court new customers and mend relationships with the ones it had.
Dubbed the Un-carrier Plan, T-Mobile's makeover was designed to be revealed in stages throughout 2013, using media coverage generated at bold press events. Jack Morton Worldwide West Coast, a brand-development firm, became T-Mobile's partner in the brand relaunch, helping it to design an experiential public-relations campaign that members of the press would find hard to ignore.
T-Mobile USA Inc. enticed members of the media to a press event that used blunt words and bold tactics to challenge the status quo of the cellular service provider industry and reveal changes happening at the company.
Feel the Pain
In March 2013, T-Mobile launched the first of its radical changes at an event labeled Un-carrier 1.0. The new feature being announced was T-Mobile's elimination of customer contracts, a shift that allowed T-Mobile to break free from the pack in one swift move. Such an announcement could have simply been made in a press release, as the change alone was gasp inducing in an industry where pay-as-you-go plans from major providers were unheard of. But instead T-Mobile crafted an event that was designed to be a launch pad for its new Un-carrier identity and set the tone for the changes yet to come.
Held in a warehouse-style venue in New York, the in-your-face event hosted 150 media professionals who were asked to look at cellular providers through the eyes of consumers and to feel their pain. To that end, attendees were forced to walk through a "contract detector" that randomly announced whether they were accepted or denied, and guests could peruse the Bill Shock Hall of Shame, where oversized graphics depicted some of the more egregious instances in which customers were socked with unexpectedly huge bills. Gigantic signs lined the walls – each bemoaning one of the myriad customer pain points the company identified in its research – while another sign highlighted some of the incomprehensible language cellphone contracts include.
To kick off the presentation, T-Mobile showed a video on screens that surrounded the room of comedian Jason Jones doing man-on-the-street interviews with New Yorkers, querying them about their feelings for mobile phone service providers. "Would you rather sign a two-year contract or get a root canal?" he asked. Most people opted for the root canal.
The funny clip was an appropriate segue to Legere – a legendarily colorful character himself – taking the stage. Widely known for his trash-talking, sneaker-wearing persona, Legere didn't mince words when telling the press gathered before him that the wireless industry is broken. "Let's stop the bullshit!" he shouted into the microphone, prompting a few raised eyebrows but dozens of media stories about how T-Mobile was shucking off the status quo among cellular providers.
T-Mobile leveraged its widespread publicity from Un-carrier 1.0 to craft a second event in July where it would announce additional customer-focused improvements to its business model. "We needed the press to see that the change in attitude was for real and that T-Mobile was truly committed to being different," says Lindsay Grinstead, senior account director with Jack Morton.
The invitation to media outlets promised that the reveal at Un-carrier 2.0 would be even bolder than the announcements at the press conference in March, and more than 200 media reps showed up to hear the mystery news firsthand. While they waited in line outside the Manhattan event venue, attendees tweeted and live blogged their anticipation, leaving no question that T-Mobile had generated more than a little excitement among them for what might be coming next.
Inside the industrial-looking event space, the room was dominated by a 30-foot-long digital wall serving as the back of a stage. Tweets from happy T-Mobile customers flitted across it, as did headlines that appeared after the Un-carrier 1.0 event. A video montage of the press's reaction to Un-carrier 1.0 showed that T-Mobile had indeed permeated the airwaves and garnered a fair amount of gushing over its revolutionary announcement, even receiving a mention during a "Tonight Show" monologue.
Branding the event in a way Corporate Event Awards judges called "smart," the company's signature bright pink color was splashed across surfaces in the room with the help of light gels and projection equipment, and slim strips of pink and white LED lights created horizontal patterns down the walls on the perimeter. Chairs filled the center-stage area, while rows of highboy tables flanked them on both sides, and the room was a sea of technology as guests blogged, tweeted, and photographed the scene. Music pulsated from speakers positioned around the space, adding a rebel vibe to the event, and as the lights dimmed, Legere hopped on stage wearing a pink T-Mobile T-shirt under a suit coat.
Legere revealed T-Mobile's newest fix for customer pain points – the Just Upgrade My Phone (JUMP) plan that would allow T-Mobile users to pay a monthly fee and be able to upgrade their phone up to twice per year. With most companies at the time only offering upgrades after 24 months, Legere called the change ground breaking for the industry. The presentation included other announcements about expansions in the company's 4G LTE network, new devices available, and the success of the contract-free plans – which was credited with adding more than a million new customers for T-Mobile in the second quarter of 2013.
After the press conference ended, staff invited guests to the roof of the venue for a private party hosted by Ludo Lefebvre of "Top Chef" fame and Harley Viera-Newton, a fashion model who also tours as one of the country's most sought after disc jockeys. Comfortable lounging areas gave members of the press a stylish space where they could relax and finish writing and filing their stories, Grinstead says, and the high-end vibe of the affair was intended to convey that T-Mobile was already celebrating its next round of success.
Shakira-ing Things Up
T-Mobile had one more reveal planned for 2013, but it wanted to take this one right to wireless consumers rather than holding another press-only event. The news T-Mobile had to share about its next change for cellular customers – that it would offer free international data and texting – was so huge that it needed an event just as big to do the announcement justice.
Preparation for the Un-carrier 3.0 event was started months in advance by teams dispatched to destinations around the globe. Since the company would be touting its international offerings, it wanted to collect footage in some of the 100 countries where customers could use the free cellular amenities.
While production of an international video was underway, a team began assembling all the components the company would need to throw a free concert in New York's Bryant Park. T-Mobile execs secured global pop diva Shakira to headline the show, also signing her on as a company spokeswoman with a multiyear contract. She was the right choice for the company, Grinstead says, because as a Colombian star, she brought the effort an international flavor that it needed. Hip-hop icon Swizz Beatz was booked to open for her, creating a lineup that Millennials and Generation X customers alike would flock to.
Six days before the October 2013 event, T-Mobile sent digital invitations to register for tickets to customers near New York City, and Legere reports that all 10,000 tickets were snatched up in about 45 minutes. Planners also invited members of the press, though offered them no inkling of what Un-carrier 3.0 would reveal. Invitations only sported a photo of Shakira, information about the event, and a tease that there would be "a major industry announcement for T-Mobile."
To fuel the media buzz, T-Mobile turned the entire park into a giant hot spot for the press by having a signal broadcast in from the top of the Empire State Building. It also secured Xylobands – radio-frequency controlled bracelets that pulse LED lights on demand from a remote controller – for every attendee.
A few days before the event, word of the concert was making its way through New York as members of the press pondered aloud what T-Mobile's next announcement might be. Embedded in most press mentions was also a recounting of the changes announced at Un-carrier 1.0 and 2.0, giving the company endless bang for its buck on events that were already months old.
Bryant Park also attracted curiosity from passersby as the impromptu concert venue took shape in its grassy open area. A stage with several massive LED screens, rigging for lights, speaker towers, signage, and makeshift admission gates sprang up on the eve of the event, and all of New York was buzzing with two words: Shakira and T-Mobile.
Though the concert was in the middle of the work week, attendees swarmed the streets by late afternoon, clamoring to get past the gates. In the park, pumped-in music amped up anticipation, while branding flashing across the digital screen touted T-Mobile to the thousands assembled. Concert goers were tweeting furiously from inside, and their tweets were being captured by a technology team and splashed across the screen as well.
Festivities opened with a video montage recapping Un-carrier 1.0 and 2.0 and the resounding success for T-Mobile that followed. Legere appeared in one of the clips saying, "The way the industry forces people to buy phones and service – it's nuts. People feel scammed," which drew a roar from the crowd. Legere promised the announcement that was forthcoming would genuinely create a revolution in the cellular industry, and the audience was in a frenzy as the Xylobands flashed colors with each beat of the video's closing music. The next video depicted people enjoying their cellphones in various international cities from Sydney to Paris, with animated graphics showing thin lines in T-Mobile's signature pink hue crisscrossing the globe. Punctuated by drum beats, the words "Unleash the World" appeared, followed by an interview with Shakira in which she extolled the virtues of T-Mobile.
The announcement that T-Mobile was offering free international data and texting prompted a new flurry of tweets with the #unleash hashtag from audience members. Journalists rushed to blog, tweet, and file stories too, vying to be first to break the news to consumers.
By the time Swizz Beatz took the stage, T-Mobile had broken into the top 10 trending topics on Twitter, a position pushed even higher when Shakira stepped up to the microphone. Backed by a full-scale light show visible from a half mile away, Shakira brought the event home by performing a selection of her hits, and T-Mobile had officially finished its 2013 campaign.
Un-carrier 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 catapulted T-Mobile into the stratosphere in terms of brand recognition and new business. By taking an edgy, man-against-the-machine stance and engaging members of the press as well as consumers to convey it, the campaign garnered a whopping 650 million social-media impressions and more than 12,000 stories in print, on TV, and online.
But more importantly, the Un-carrier campaign made T-Mobile the darling of the cellphone industry, irresistible to consumers who wanted a better partner for their cellular relationship. Its revolutionary changes to customer contracts were widely credited with being the impetus that prompted the industry's other big players to follow suit, but for many, it was too late, as T-Mobile had already courted millions away. To wit, in 2012, the company lost 500,000 subscribers, but by the end of 2013, it had added 4.4 million new ones. Even promises from other providers to change couldn't stem the tide of customers leaving for T-Mobile, as the company had already won them over with the wooing of the century.