January 13, 2007

Dumpstering and AT&T -- The Great Cingular De-Branding

Part of the 11-year-mark dumpster activity I posted about below involves current news insomuch as I worked on the launch of Cingular in 2000/2001 while I was at Ketchum.

What this has to do with dirty Dumpsters is that news of AT&T's de-branding campaign came just an hour after I sat in this very spot at my laptop nostalgically leafing through the old Employee Road Show Plan and Briefing Book for Cingular, two samples I saved from my agency days and this week's Dumpster flush at the Sessum house.

Cingular is in the news because it is essentially unbecoming Cingular.

One of the biggest “de-brandings” in advertising history is to begin Monday when AT&T, now the sole owner of Cingular Wireless, starts changing all Cingular marketing to adopt the AT&T name.

AT&T will not disclose the budget for the campaign, which will continue for five or six months — leading to the partnership with Apple on the new iPhone, scheduled for midyear.

I like to tell the story about the head of the Atlanta office telling me not to dare utter the name C-i-n-g-u-l-a-r aloud back in 2000, and my paranoid hiding of the piece of paper with the Cingular name on it in my underwear drawer, not even telling George what the name was until Launch time. My job was to write messaging around the name -- why the C, etc. -- ahead of the launch. A dirty job, but, hey. Not much has changed there. ;-)

Allow me to provide a coveted snippet of what brand new Cingular employees -- the first to work for this new and revolutionary wireless company -- heard back in the day of its dawning when executives traveled across the country introducing the company to the team, a trip down memory lane if you will:
We're here today to have a conversation, really, about our new company. There are two exciting things about what I just said -- this company is new and it's ours. And, as the video said, it's more than a name change -- we are a once-in-a-lifetime company.

Cingular is going to be what we make of it for all of us as employees and for our customers as well. ... Even as we speak -- for many days -- your executive team has hit the road to take the story to Cingular Employees across the nation. Our launch to the outside world will be on January 14th, but we want you -- the insiders -- to hear about it first...

We want to meet you, and we want you to meet us. After all, each of us is going to express ourselves at Cingular. Collectively, we will be stronger if we listen to each other and share ideas.

There was big branding money behind a destined-to-be giant at just the right time in the wireless revolution.

And just like the white board where so many ideas emerged, it can be erased just like that. But all of this branding, re-branding and de-branding costs mega-bucks--$1 billion just last year to promote AT&T as the brand name of SBC, which gave rise to Cingular (along with BellSouth) in the first place, and the same brand that Cingular shed in 2004. And it costs a lot in terms of customer attention and employee identity too.

Whether or not it will be worth it is not something I'm not far enough inside to speculate on. Of course, being part of the Apple iPhone deal will help keep the company in the news--no matter what it's called it's going to be part of the Next Big Thing.

But will it be the right part--the right partner?

I do think Cingular was one of the most impressive brands of its kind built in the last ten years. Whether you morph the logo into a globe with a jack head, an inside out jack, or a jackass, AT&T will still have its work cut out to find a way to be believable as innovative and nimble in a space where those qualities are expected and valued.

Cingular said back then, "We are not a technology company; we are a human expression company!"

What does AT&T want to be when it re-grows up?

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