AT&T to drop Cingular brand

Lisa Napoli Jan 12, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: We kind of take them for granted, but companies don’t change their branding strategies lightly. Getting something that sticks with consumers can take years and cost billions. So our eyebrows went up this morning when we saw reports AT&T is launching a massive ad campaign about one of its subsidiaries. It’s the company’s biggest marketing job ever with an extraordinary message. Forget that brand known as Cingular. Everything’s just plain AT&T from now on. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli asked the experts just how smart a move this might be.

LISA NAPOLI: A brief and partial history of the modern phone business:

AT&T spawned the Baby Bells, and then one of those companies became SBC, and then AT&T spun out its wireless division, and SBC started its own wireless company named Cingular, and then Cingular bought AT&T wireless, and then AT&T bought Cingular, and now it’s going to be called AT&T.

Branding expert John Deighton of Harvard Business School gives this latest name change a failing grade:

JOHN DEIGHTON: And the billions of dollars that they put into building a very good name — a very contemporary name, a very hip name — are now totally wasted.

Richard Williamson of AdWeek thinks consumers are so used to ping-ponging name changes that they don’t care what their phone service is called. Still, he gets that AT&T is entrenched in the public psyche. After all, it’s been around almost as long as the phone.

Williamson says the brand, though, needs some updating:

RICHARD WILLIAMSON: What they’ve got to do is get you to forget everything about the old AT&T, just forget about that, and then start thinking about the new AT&T.

Which is hoping to convince you its much more than a phone company, but a place to get TV, Internet and all manner of data, too.

Brand expert Rob Frankel says the trouble is none of the phone companies has done a particularly good job of creating any loyalty:

ROB FRANKEL: There’s nobody out there that can tell you the difference between Sprint, Cingular, T-Mobile, NexTel, what have you.

What most people can tell you is how much they hate their cell-phone carrier, whoever it is. Frankel says until you love your phone company so much that you don’t want to give it up, it doesn’t matter what you call it.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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