It was awfully blunt language, especially on a day normally reserved for cooing sweet nothings to a loved one. Yet last Valentine’s Day, as some marketers were pitching chocolates and flowers and other tokens of affection, the discount wireless phone company Mobilicity urged Canadians to “stop getting screwed” by the industry’s big three players: Rogers Wireless, Bell Mobility, and Telus Mobility. To push the point home, small crews of young women headed into the downtown areas of Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa to hand out condoms advertising the upstart company’s “couples plan,” priced at a dirty-minded $69. (
For Mobilicity, it was just another in-your-face stunt, such as last fall’s “FMyBill” contest, which called on people to submit sad tales of abuse at the hands of the incumbent providers. When the company launched in the spring of last year, it had sent squads of faux protesters dressed in magenta camouflage marching through the streets of Toronto and Vancouver with megaphones to sing teasing chants outside the corporate headquarters of Rogers and Telus.
You might think this would be richly profitable territory, since the established cellphone companies score notoriously low on customer satisfaction, dogged as they are by complaints of poor service, long contracts, limited handset choices, enigmatic billing practices, and high prices.
But now Mobilicity appears to be scrapping its scrappy side. Last month, it ditched its vice-president of marketing and its advertising agency of record, and this week the company rolled out a rebranding effort that moves the focus of its message from the rest of the industry’s sins to its own positive qualities. In making the pivot, Mobilicity seems to have discovered a hard truth about marketing: While voters taking stock of political candidates may react well to negative advertising, consumers taking stock of products and services rarely do.
“We were spending a lot of time telling consumers what we’re against, but we weren’t necessarily building the affiliation of what we were for,” acknowledges Anthony Booth, Mobilicity’s chief customer officer, who joined the company in April.
Still, he defends the work of his predecessors. “I think you have to go through all those phases, though. It’s kind of like a politician: You need to understand what they don’t want to do, and then you have to understand what they want to do as well. I think for us it’s just a natural evolution of growing the brand, bringing the brand to life.”
But other so-called challenger brands managed to bring their brands to life by simultaneously ridiculing Big Wireless and maintaining a light, positive touch. Months before it launched in late 2009, Wind Mobile made a series of comical videos that poked fun at the practices of some incumbents, such as hidden fees and long contracts. In one, a vendor sold hot dogs for $1 and then charged extra for a bun, a napkin, condiments, etc; in another, a fake parking enforcement officer randomly locked up people’s bicycles and then tried to charge $200 to release them.
In fact, one of the problems with Mobilicity’s positioning may have been tonal. “There are two things to consider here: what you say matters, but also tone matters,” suggests Michael Mulvey, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.
“I think the timing was right, in terms of having a market that was ready for an alternative. The problem was with tone, the perceived strong language,” he adds. “On the one hand, you’re trying to attract an audience that isn’t being served properly, but on the other hand you’re risking alienating, turning off, offending your potential customer base.”
“It was certainly outside of the norm in terms of comparative advertising.”
Public Mobile, another discount provider that launched around the same time as Mobilicity, came to market with advertising that featured simple, bold images of everyday Canadians from an array of ethnic backgrounds, photographed with a quiet dignity. The company placed the ads at street level, underscoring a commonality between their target market and the people in the campaign. (
“When you’re in telco in Canada, you have to battle against negative perceptions across the board,” says Mike Stanford, the vice-president of marketing for Public Mobile. “That makes it all the more important to come across as a likeable brand.”
“As a general rule,” he says, “I don’t think Canadians are an angry and dissatisfied lot.”
And strong comparative advertising rankles many people; indeed, it is illegal in many markets around the world. Here in Canada, it is practised far less frequently than in the United States. Even south of the border, companies may nick rivals but rarely go for their jugular. One of the most famous campaigns of the last few years, Apple’s Mac versus PC, walked a fine line between mocking computers running on Microsoft’s Windows operating systems and touting the ease of using Apple laptops.
But now that the company has become the market leader in many segments, some have found its recent advertising smug, such as a series of TV spots that ran during the spring, telling viewers: “If you don’t have an iPhone, you don’t have an iPhone.”
Mr. Mulvey suggests that a company that presents itself as the rebellious alternative to incumbents needs to do more than just arouse people’s dissatisfaction; it must ensure customers flock to them, rather than their competitors in the same challenger category.
Otherwise, “you could have had somebody who ended up with Wind or Public Mobile, that got the original idea from Mobilicity.”
To that end, the new Mobilicity image work tries to establish a new identity for the brand, with a pair of so-called “spokesaliens” in the company’s magenta-and-green colours, and a new tagline that taps into those characters’ supposed higher intelligence: “Now that’s smart.” It is a clear move to accentuate the positive.
Still, Mr. Booth reserves the right to go negative again. “If we find there are things and stories that consumers have that reinforce the value of the brand and why Mobilicity is a tremendous choice for them, we’ll continue to use tactics like that if they fit in with the brand messaging.”
He can’t say yet whether the aliens have middle fingers they might raise in anger toward the Big Three. “As we continue to work with the animators to flesh out these folks,” he chuckles, “we’ll have to figure out if they’re five- or four- or two-fingered creatures.”