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My Name Is AT&T (I Think)

January 15th, 2007

The consummate name game is unfolding on your TV screen today.

In 2005, SBC Communications bought AT&T, creating a company that reminds us those old enough to remember of Ma Bell. Then last year, AT&T finally got approval to take over BellSouth and changed its name to AT&T. AT&T did not, however, change the name of Cingular, now under its sole control, at the same time, but is doing the name-change-dance today, January 15, 2007. The branding geniuses (lightly used) from AT&T have forgotten how much AT&T was hated as a wireless company just a few years ago.

I get name recognition as well as the next marketer. But here we go…

Cingular, with their odd little orange-man-shaped logo, grew to become not only a well recognized name—even if the idea of singular or analog in a digital world was comical—and a connector to youth culture, but also a quality performer in a marketplace where “cell phone companies” are hated, period.

AT&T on the other hand was recognized in its previous incarnation as downright clueless when it came to wireless. (They were the phone company and took their sweet time grabbing hold of the new non-tethered space).

People cringed in the 90s when you met someone who’d been guileless enough to sign a contract with AT&T Wireless. What irked me as a PR pro was the nearly billion dollars a year this wayward group spent on ads and unreadable advertorial mini-magazines that popped up as newspaper circulars and were handed out at rodeos. All that cash and yet AT&T never bothered to do anything to improve a shoddy cell system nor its crappy customer handling.

The recent AT&T jumped onto to an orbital shaped logo and adopted a tagline I still can’t decipher: “Your world. Delivered.” Most wondered how this newly-minted AT&T could deliver any world whatsoever when it frustrated us with poor wireless signals.

AT&T began been delivering all things to all people, claiming to offer superior “modern” communication. But this company’s raison d’être is still not there. In a fast-paced century actions speak louder than name changes.

Cingular stood for new and forward thinking—I’m a customer and I know it. Still, AT&T says a bit too publicly that it will save 20 percent on operating costs if they force the brands into a single namesake. To do so, they have to forfeit the truly clever Cingular slogan, “Raising the Bar,” and are introducing a forgettable “Raising It Higher.” (A good Viagra tag, no doubt.)

It took me a while to let go of BellSouth as my BlackBerry provider; BS was the group that respectfully and gingerly brought me into the digital age. I got used to Cingular and then happy with it (though “fewest dropped calls” is quaint—and misnomeresque). Now I’m being forced to use AT&T.

In the end it’s all about ego as usual. AT&T stands tall in American history and SBC/AT&T/BellSouth/Crosby Stills Nash & Young wants to be thought of as an ages-old corporation, rather than a suspiciously monopolistic rollup from earlier this decade.

Whatever the naming rationale, this once again smells like people who want to keep their jobs and thus add work that isn’t necessary. Plus, what’s going to happen to the little Cingular orange man? Will he be getting work somewhere? I mean, the last time something this round had personality it was hanging on a desert island with Tom Hanks.

CEO Richard Laermer has a new book coming out late next month: Punk Marketing, co-written with marketing guru Mark Simmons.