The Case for Complexity: AT&T’s Wireless Network Brand Architecture


American mobile service provider AT&T has announced that it will be launching its new 4G network in 5 cities this summer investigate this site. Except that AT&T already has a network that it calls 4G – but that one is currently an HSPA+ network, which is technically 3G. And the new one is an LTE network, which is technically called 3GPP and “does not fully comply with the IMT Advanced 4G requirement.” And also the new “4G” network might not actually be as fast as the old “4G” network.

All clear? Of course not, but that’s actually great news for AT&T.

In classic brand architecture terms, this is what we in the business call a “complete mess”. Your average consumer has no way to make sense of the service being provided or compare it to competing offers.tutorial android

AT&T and Other Mobile Providers Don’t Want it to Make Sense

This isn’t necessarily a conspiracy on the part of the wireless carriers. It’s just that real-world performance is inconsistent, unpredictable and impossible to compare beyond specific hardware in a specific place at a single moment in time. So instead of trying to make clear claims that their customers may then hold them accountable for, these companies intentionally use an indecipherable alphabet soup of acronyms, standards, metrics and buzzwords to imply innovation and performance.

And it works. 4G sounds better than 3G, two 4G networks sound better than one and you’re telling me I can have both HSPA+ and LTE at my disposal? I don’t know what they are but how did I ever live without them?!?

Sometimes There’s No Such Thing as Too Many Features

Here’s another example: if you’re not a runner yourself, it’s a safe bet you know one. Assuming you or s/he isn’t a barefoot runner, take a look at your/her/his preferred shoes and count the number of branded features they tout.

The Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra GTX® trail runner features:

  • Sensifit™
  • Quicklace™
  • 3D advanced chassis™
  • OrthoLite®
  • and ContraGrip™
The Asics Gel Nimbus® 13 running shoe has:

  • I.G.S.®
  • Guidance Line™
  • Space Trusstic System®
  • ComfortDry™
  • Biomorphic Fit®
  • and AHAR®

Even this brand-savvy author’s morning jog was completed in a pair of Kalenji Kapteren XT’s, complete with CS®, Arkstab® and BiPron® technology. And, frankly, those features helped make the sale, despite the fact that we have no idea what they mean or what benefit they provide. They created a diffuse but visceral sense that the shoe was engineered to deliver real performance.

Use With Caution

Don’t get us wrong – this post is not an endorsement of patenting, branding and furiously marketing every feature or function you can jam into your product. In commodity categories (gasoline, clothing, cleaning products) or in categories where customers want and are willing to do real comparisons (banking, education, virtually all B2B sales) complexity sows confusion and confusion drives customers away. But in many others (personal computers, mattresses, mountain bikes) there are compelling reasons to keep marketing and brand architecture complex. In categories where high performance matters, to strive for simplicity may simply be too simplistic.


Now It’s Your Turn
Show all responses
  • Rob
    May 27, 2011

    Haha, I love it! Some ex-simple-is-smarters making the case for complexity.

    Not sure about some of your argument, though. First, I don’t see this as complex brand architecture (which would have more to do with organization and relationships between brands), just overzealous feature naming and TMing, and in some cases misleading naming.

    The thing about giving a feature a name and building it as an “ingredient brand” is that in some ways it simplifies things (Gore-Tex versus “a porous form of polytetrafluoroethylene with a micro-structure characterized by nodes interconnected by fibrils”), but sometimes it creates confusion or even misleads, like a consulting firm giving a TMed name to its “proprietary process,” which is the same as all their competitors’ processes.

    For AT&T, I actually think they’re creating more confusion, and that misleading consumers may have short-term advantages but cause problems for them (and the industry) in the long term.

    And for the shoes, I think may just be a question of moderation, to avoid feature overload.

    Something to think about. Great post, as always.

  • BrandCultureTalk
    May 28, 2011

    Thanks Rob. We have a more catholic definition of the term brand architecture, but reasonable minds can disagree. Time will tell if AT&T and other wireless carriers are sowing the seeds of consumer discontent with all of this complexity, or whether memories are short and 5G will make everyone forget about what came before. Personally, we’re waiting for 6G.

  • BrandCultureTalk
    Jun 23, 2011

    TechCrunch ran a piece on consumers’ appetite for 4G:

    Our take is that no, a 4G claim isn’t enough to get someone to upgrade and sign a new contract, but all other things being equal it will be enough to tip the scales for one phone/carrier over another, and perhaps even charge a small premium for.

    That’s why we think it’s effective marketing for AT&T to label as many phones as it can 4G, 5G and beyond (since nobody really knows what any of it means anyway).

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