AT&T's Ad Spending Surges Amid 5G Marketing Efforts

Mike Dano
1/28/2019

AT&T has dramatically increased its spending on TV advertising in recent weeks, in part to highlight its new "5G E" services. Specifically, the company has spent an estimated $73 million in just the past few days, mostly on its new "Just OK Is Not OK" advertising campaign, which touts the quality of the operator's network and highlights the fact that AT&T now offers "5G E" services.

The actions by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) indicate that the operator is doubling down on its "we have the best network" message, as well as its decision to change the "LTE" icon on many of its Android phones to a "5G E" icon. The move also paves the way for an ongoing marketing battle between AT&T and Verizon Wireless about which operator offers the best, biggest and most reliable network, and which operator is the "first" to 5G.

And, at least based on its marketing efforts, AT&T may well believe it has the upper hand. "Just OK is not OK," proclaims actress and author Lena Waithe, likely best known for her work on Netflix comedy-drama series Master of None, in a new series of AT&T advertisements. AT&T's new ad campaign focuses on different situations -- surgeries, car repair and tattoos -- where quality is valued.

Importantly, at the end of each of its ads in the campaign, AT&T touts that it offers "America's best wireless network" and that the network is "now with 5G E."

Follows initial '5G E' groundwork
AT&T began laying the groundwork for its move to 5G E in 2017, when it announced it would apply the "5G Evolution" branding label to markets where it had deployed LTE Advanced technologies like 4x4 MIMO, LAA and 256 QAM. Then, at the end of 2018, AT&T said it would begin replacing the "LTE" icon on phones in its 5G Evolution markets with a "5G E" icon -- a move likely to eventually affect millions of AT&T Android smartphone customers in AT&T's 400 5G Evolution markets across the country. Not surprisingly, the operator's rivals balked. (See Verizon, AT&T Spar Over 5G Service Names, Marketing.)

Nonetheless, AT&T's actions now appear to be filtering down into its marketing messages. And AT&T is spending the money to make sure that people take notice.

According to advertising-tracking company iSpot, AT&T spent an estimated $73 million from January 19-21 to run 12 ads 4,902 times on national TV. The vast majority of this spend includes ads focusing on 5G E mentions, the firm noted.

Conversely, during the same period last year, AT&T spent just $17.7 million on TV advertisements, iSpot said.

Moreover, this all represents an overall growth in AT&T's advertising spending on it wireless offerings. iSpot said the operator spent a total of $38.2 million during December 2018 on advertising, which was up from the $10.1 million it spent during December 2017.

As noted by AdWeek, AT&T's newest "Just OK Is Not OK" campaign was created by a team from ad-company Omnicom alongside others from BBDO, Critical Mass, Hearts & Science and Organic, and it made its broadcast debut during the college football playoff. It will run throughout January.

"It could potentially prove to be a long-running, entertaining premise that helps differentiate the brand as the 5G network wars heat up," the publication noted.

Beyond TV, AT&T's network messaging is also reaching into the operator's retail stores. Research firm Wave7 noted that a number of AT&T retail outlets now boast the AT&T "best network" claim via signs and other materials, and that the message has also made its way into AT&T's press releases.

As Wave7 noted, AT&T bases its "best network" claim on results from network-testing company GWS, which conducts drive tests across the country. That testing method is decidedly different from the kinds of survey-based results touted by J.D. Power and Associates (and cited by Verizon) or the crowd-sourced results offered by Ookla (and sometimes cited by T-Mobile).

The end result is that each carrier can cite data backing up its claim of offering the nation's "best" network.

An AT&T representative declined to discuss the company's advertising spending, which likely stretches beyond broadcast TV and into other mediums including digital, radio and billboards.

To be clear, AT&T isn't alone in focusing some of its advertising on 5G. After the operator launched its 5G Home service in October, Verizon proclaimed that it was "first to 5G, first to tomorrow" in a series of advertisements, some voiced by top Verizon 5G executive Nicki Palmer.

The advertising game plan for Super Bowl LIII
Perhaps the next major stop on the 5G marketing train will be the Super Bowl on February 3, which stands as one of the advertising industry's major annual events. However, according to a Fortune report, Verizon, for one, doesn't plan to dwell on 5G. Instead Verizon reportedly will focus on its offerings for public safety.

That may not come as a surprise given that AT&T is mounting a serious challenge to Verizon's public safety business due to AT&T's contract with FirstNet, which is charged with building a nationwide wireless network for first responders. (See AT&T on Track With 5G, Starts FirstNet Build.)

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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