Winning the Brand Wars How often have we heard in recent years that life will never be the same? During the dot.com boom, we heard consumers would never again buy things in the same old way. After 9/11, we were told to expect a whole new world. Today, global warming threatens to degrade the planet irreversibly. Things change rapidly, but the odd thing is that people really don’t. Human beings are wired to maintain a sense of status quo. We adapt new technologies to our lives, rather than adapt our lives to new technology; most of us carry on doing what we were doing before, only faster and more so. We create a new normal. And so it goes for cable. As customers enjoy new services, pay their bills on line, set their DVRs, buy premium movies in HD, download songs at blazing speeds, and chat long distance for hours without remorse, how many, I wonder, stop to think how different their cable company is today compared to just a few years ago? Or how different their cable company is from any other entertainment or communications provider? Sadly, not many. A recent study revealed a disturbing truth: cable companies are better known than liked. And while our products are highly relevant to people’s lives, not one cable provider has managed to differentiate itself from its competitive set. For all that we have innovated, for all the exciting new services that we have brought to market, for all that we think of ourselves as modern, differentiated brands—we remain in many consumers’ minds… utilities. And a lack of differentiation can only put pressure on subscriber numbers and revenues. The stakes are higher than ever. As we’ve pushed into phone and HSD, we’ve taken on some tough, well-funded competition. Satellite providers have taken share from our core; Vonage and Skype have been nibbling away. But it’s the fiber-touting telcos that threaten to take more mind-share, customers or both. The consumer is being tempted by new offerings all the time. How many will migrate to AT&T thanks to Apple’s iPhone? Can the appearance of more speed from new brands make broadband more attractive? And how many new sources of subscriber erosion will we need to deal with tomorrow and the day after that? The fact is, our playing field has changed irrevocably. Consumers have more options, switching is easier, and price competition is more intense than ever before. It’s no longer just about maximizing share of our people’s entertainment wallets. It’s about winning and retaining the hearts and minds of customers to keep them in the fold. It’s about finding a brand position that makes sense. We cannot deny our utility roots, and we cannot expect consumers to suddenly think of us as Apple-like technology leaders. But we can differentiate ourselves by ‘getting’ our customers better than other providers, by being the brands they trust to make bundling easy, by providing innovations that matter, and by helping people manage their communications better. But none of it will amount to anything unless we invest enough in our brands to make people realize how we’re making their lives better and easier. The telcos are spending aggressively behind their fiber-optic networks, and they’re doing it on a national scale. This is a serious challenge, and cable brands need to counter with sophisticated campaigns—not just 30-second television spots. Most importantly, we cannot depend on our own cross channel avails (that misses up to 40 percent of the market) to get the job done. Let there be no doubt: it’s a brand war. If we get smart and act aggressively, it is a war our brands can win. (Sam Howe serves as chief marketing officer at Time Warner Cable and co-chair of CTAM Summit ’07).

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