Steve Yi

In the mobile telecom category, Asia is clearly at the forefront of technological development and it can be argued that Asia is even more advanced in many ways than the West. But just like e-mail was supposed to create a ‘paper-less’ society, is the mobile phone system destined to create a truly and completely ‘wire-less’ society? And if so, what is to become of the mighty land-line telecom services in this new world?

Using Brand Acceleration, Grey Group’s strategic planning framework, we will examine how the telecom industry is accelerating change in the modern world. To begin any brand acceleration analysis, it’s always good to take a reading of the four key areas in the Brand Compass – category, consumers, channels and brand. In this case, we will look at the category. And if any category can represent both acceleration and deceleration, it’s telecommunications. On one hand, mobile phone development is outpacing every other consumer good sector, taking full advantage of technological convergence. On the other, with people using their ‘land-lines’ less and less, how can the core telecommunications infrastructure, the cash cow of the industry, remain relevant in a wireless world?

Just for some perspective, for Asians in 1998, the primary mobile telecommunications tool was the pager for many business people – mobile phones were in its infancy and very unreliable. Now, people change mobile phones like clothing, almost every season adding new services along the way like live TV service, digital camera capabilities, movie-filming utilities and so forth. In ‘mobile-aware’ nations like Finland (the home of Nokia), the ratio of cell phones to fixed-line home phones is almost 5:1. In Asia, the estimated ratio is at least 2:1 and increasing.

This global phenomenon has essentially forced local telecom companies to diversify their portfolio into providing internet and mobile services or become irrelevant in the modern world, with ever-increasing portions of their business being reliant on these services with land-lines performing as ‘cash cow’ portions of the business. Fixed-line phones are an ‘afterthought’ for many consumers, a back-up tool just in case the mobile connections fail for some unforeseen reason.

This is also reflected in their advertising communications. The preponderance of marketing by telecoms has been on their mobile or internet services. Recent films of NTT DoCoMo’s ‘Future’ Vision 2010 show tremendous focus of this ‘non-linear’ life of the future. Deutsche Telekom has its new ‘e-health’ campaigns where new mobile internet services could save your life by instantly downloading basic medical information direct to the ambulance medical technicians.

Let us take a look at some of Asia’s land-line services and how they are trying to accelerate in this new, uncertain world dominated by mobile technology.

In Japan, NTT has tried to communicate the speed of its land-lines in relation to the internet since Wi-Fi is still not very fast comparatively. This has prompted the introduction of services such as the ‘L-mode’ service where people can search the internet (on a more limited scale) on their phones or the communication of upgraded ‘Kwang’ lines to enhance overall speed & performance of the internet and the home phone for a lower price than mobile.

The Philippines is taking the rather obvious and ineffective approach of converting a land-line phone into a limited mobile phone. Why would people bother with the hassle for a small bit of savings in the long-run? India takes a more similar approach to Japan by combining the low prices of land-lines and getting better power and performance with the internet (again, based on the assumption that Wi-Fi will take some time to catch up).

Korea is the unique case in Asia where it does not try to market new services linked up with the internet or some derivation of a wireless phone. Instead Korea Telecom has brought forward a case for a completely new positioning that hints at a possible method of resuscitation from its ever-downward spiral to irrelevance. Say hello to the ‘Organic Phone’.

The purpose of the ‘organic’ message is twofold: (1) to hint at the ecological waste of mobile handsets & the unknown, probably harmful effects of radio waves on human brains (a lot of environmental and health news has circulated locally on this) and (2) to clearly differentiate the fixed-line phone in the huge clutter of mobile telecom advertising. No mobile telecom service would dare to claim it was ‘organic’. The final ironic part is the use of a real ‘carrot’ semiotic visual (a temptation metaphor) to convey that using fixed-line phones in your home is at even lower prices than even mobile phones – the cost of just 39 won (about 5 cents) to talk to anyone in the country for 24 hours (one continuous call).

It is a breathtaking acceleration attempt of a practically extinct category. The leveraging of the ‘well-being’ trend in application to the service is also strikingly bold as it is dangerously risky (attacking its own mobile services to a limited extent). To be realistic, technology will no doubt eventually make fixed-line services somewhat insignificant in the larger picture of things. But it is also interesting to note that ‘insignificant’ does not mean ‘irrelevant’ and that it is still possible to ‘accelerate’ dying products and brands to make them relevant to the new market dynamic. In the face of giant barriers such as declining subscriptions, the domination of mobile telecommunications and the simple fact that differences in calling costs are non-existent, this campaign is clearly a bold ‘acceleration’ on a huge scale for the fixed-line industry.