Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Playing with fire

It's old news now, but I have been thinking about why Vodafone has been running its high risk campaign about it's 3G network that has led to Telecom launching its Commerce Commission action.

If you've missed it, here's the background...

Vodafone's Christmas campaign is all about coverage this year with a tag line of 'NZ's largest and fastest 3G network*' with the asterisk linking to a disclaimer that this is 3G based on W-CDMA coverage.

Technically this is all true - Vodafone have the only W-CDMA network in NZ.

Of course this would be fine if Telecom NZ didn't have 3G network (it does) nor if it's coverage was greater (it is) nor if the speed comparisons were unequivocal (they are equivocal as Vodafone does not have its top speed rolled out everywhere)

Which is why Telecom has taken its commerce commission action.  
One of the sideshows of this has been the pissing contest taking place on Geekzone, which is the wrong place for a PR guy to get cute about what Telecom has said about its current (larger) 3G network which it is about to replace with a newer, faster  3G network. Suggesting that there is a like with like comparison on  a network that hasn't been built and ignoring the current network as it is due to be replaced is just madness. Especially since the current network is still being offered to customers.

I've been in a position where I have provided expert evidence at the Advertising Standards Complaints Authority and the Environment Court. These are not places for bluff and bluster. The Commerce Commission is probably worse. A few well chosen questions and your evidence will be treated with contempt. Placing your corporate view on public sites like Geekzone is great when you are talking about your own company, but taking your competitor's statements and using them for your own justification is really unwise with this type of action looming. I hope for Paul's sake it doesn't get used against him as it would undo all the good work he has done to date being Vodafone's online presence - but I digress, that's not the point I am trying to make.

Here are my points

1. Vodafone *must* have known this action was coming - as I have said 3 things matter to customers on mobile. Coverage, Handsets and Price. Telecom will not give up its local coverage advantage easily as it is pretty much all it has to offer right now. The action was inevitable.

2. Vodafone can't possibly think it will win this - all Telecom has to do is prove to the commerce commission that 

a. EVDO is 3G; and
b. The majority of customers could be misled by this as they don't know what WCDMA is (especially non Vodafone customers who are clearly the target for this campaign). The only people who know are on Geekzone - that's a few thousand- the rest has no idea whether a 1.25 MHz channel or 5MHz channel matter in this debate.

They would have to seriously under-rate the technical evidence coming from Telecom to take this on. It's a pretty simple case and there are still experienced people at Telecom to take this on.

3. The outcomes for Vodafone aren't pretty
a. The maximum fine is $200 k - they would stand to get whacked with all of this
b. The greater cost is the campaign cost - in the best possible outcome, they would have to modify the campaign (maybe to fastest only, or if they were smart, emphasising global 3G coverage. Worst case they would have to pull the lot - that's millions.
c. Which leads to Brand costs - getting nailed on this would put Vodafone squarely into the camp of other large corporates who are just trying to use confusion to gain marketing advantage. Remember that?
d. Worst of all for Vodafone, Telecom would get some confidence, which it badly needs.

4. At best this was only going to be a short term campaign - Telecom's launch of its WCDMA network will give it a coverage advantage based on exactly this proposition. Until Vodafone launches its 900MHz WCDMA at which point it will all be the same.

5. Vodafone have a handset portfolio which is so large compared to Telecom's currently it is embarrassing. Vodafone have 49 on the books and have a bunch of parallel importers as well. Telecom list 22 - but it doesn't take a lot to realise that these are seriously outmoded. If they were playing football, Telecom would be completely within its rights to ask a few players to swap teams at half time just to make a game of it. 

So it seems to be high risk for limited reward. For Vodafone to success against the commerce commission, Telecom would have to end up crying on the stand that they never really had 3G, the ITU got its standards wrong, and it had mis-measured coverage and all it had to offer in mobile for now is legal action. Even then the Commerce Commission might take some pity on them.

So that leaves me with these questions.

Why run a campaign on coverage that is so tenuous and so clearly short-lived?
 Are Vodafone that keen to have a marketing advantage on coverage that they would take this sort of risk?
Why not play to your strengths which are handsets and global 3G? This would just ram Telecom as these will continue to be core advantages for sometime after Telecom launches its new network.
Who is giving these guys advice? This took me less than an hour to come up with - and the Geekzoners have been on the money as well. Maybe they are not taking any advice?
Have engineers taken over the marketing team at Vodafone? I thought the industry pretty much agreed years ago after the Qualcomm patent wars that it didn't matter if it was W-CDMA, CDMA2000 or 4G - customers just don't care so long as they are getting the service where they want it.

I think this is similar to the iPhone situation earlier this year - Vodafone are so looking to land a king hit on Telecom that they have lost sight of how to do this without misleading customers. Sticking with their core advantages may not be sexy but it would leave them with a very strong position and no risk.

The only other strategy they could possibly have is force Telecom to launch early with an underbaked network which will take them years to recover from. Given Telecom delayed launch until mid 2009 that isn't going to happen.

My call - Commerce Commission will rule against Vodafone - Vodafone will have to pay the fine and pull the campaign. I'll put a bottle of good quality scotch on that for any takers.

This leaves the door open for Telecom to innovate - ideally on data rates - with their new network. I think Vodafone will find that with all the changes at Telecom at the head of Mobile they are probably safe on that front for a while.


Anonymous said...

Miki - agreed - but i can't help but think that Voda have something up their sleeve - I mean in this day and age is anyone really stupid enough to attempt this sort of confusion marketing approach???

Time (and the comcom) will tell I guess

Anonymous said...

Guys, guys. Even if they have to pull the ads and pay the fine - put this on the advertising costs tab.

The ads have been up for some time already so whatever they wanted customers to see - the foggy view - is out there now and no fine will remove it from the weak minds with these Jedi tricks...

Mike Riversdale said...

An excellent analysis on a subject I knew little about but am much the wiser now, thank you.

FUD advertising can work in the short term but over time as such "exposes" occur the trust in the company is whittled away until there is a tipping point. I have watched this slooowly happen with Vodafone NZ in both the consumer market and the corporate (where it is much closer to that tipping point).

What happens at the tipping point? Who knows but it's likely that people both inside and outside the organisation will talk about the "good old days" once it's happened.

Silly sods.