business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Depending on where you live, you likely have been drowning in a sea of political ads for the past months.

But in between those apocalyptic messages has been a very strange business campaign that both catches my attention and leaves me scratching my head each time. And sadly, for the company running the ads, the message hasn’t come close to making me take action.

I’m referring to Sprint’s new campaign, featuring an actor who used to pitch rival Verizon’s wireless service. His pitch is that Sprint’s service is now within one percent of Verizon’s, so why not change companies and pay less.

Bob Garfield, the long time Advertising Age writer and co-host of On the Media show on National Public Radio (NPR), says the message is worth considering both for where it works and where it fails.

Garfield says the most obvious parallel to the Sprint campaign is the old Avis car rental ads that proclaimed, “We’re number two (to Hertz), but we try harder.”

Garfield says Sprint’s message is different. “It’s saying that we are not quite as good, but we are cheaper, which may makes sense in this particular category,” Garfield says. Looked at that way, Sprint could get credit for being straightforward.

However, the comparison isn’t all that simple because each wireless company, like car companies before them, finds ways to select attributes on which to compare themselves to the competition. So most consumers don’t fully trust the information they are pitched and the credibility of the comparison fails.

And there’s one bigger problem. “What troubles me is they are communicating that they are okay with being slightly less good than the dominant player. At some point they have to say they will try to be as good,” Garfield said.

I agree with Garfield on that last point whole-heartedly because being one percent less good is hardly an aspiration, especially if that little percentage actually matters.

For instance, when it comes to wireless service, if I live or regularly travel through the part of the country where the one percent is all that works, I’d see that as a big gap. The reality today is that all businesses need to know what matters most and least to their customers.

For instance, if my supermarket were 100 percent less appealing in cat food I really wouldn’t care because I’m just not a cat person. (Sorry, it’s all about allergies.) More significantly, I might forgive and not even notice if my store were one percent higher on prices or had one percent less inventory.

I’d feel very differently if my store were one percent less effective on food safety or the taste of produce. In those areas, I want top performance.

One last thing to consider and it starts with those historically great Avis ads, targeted at then-industry leader, Hertz. Today Enterprise is by far the top car rental company and it did that by beating Hertz and Avis in places where those two weren’t even looking.

In other words, don’t benchmark the past. You might find out you are second to the wrong competitor.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
KC's View: