BGR Interview: Verizon Wireless CMO Marni Walden on Android, Apple, tablets and new BlackBerry phones

We recently sat down with Verizon Wireless’ Chief Marketing Officer Marni Walden to discuss a wide range of topics — how Verizon went from smartphone zero to smartphone hero, the carrier’s colossal push that was a major catalyst for Android’s explosive growth, and even Verizon Wireless’ plans to take a leadership role with tablets just as it has with smartphones. We found it interesting that many phones are passed over when it comes to DROID branding, as that stamp of approval for only the best of the best. We covered Microsoft and RIM as well, and Ms. Walden even confirmed that Verizon Wireless will be launching three BlackBerry devices this year. The entire interview is after the break.

BGR Interview is a series of interviews and conversations with executives, influencers, tastemakers and innovators, covering the mobile and consumer electronics industries.

Historically, Verizon Wireless wasn’t really known as a leader in the smartphone space. What changed to make the company attack smartphones so aggressively over the past two years, and how would you say that this has changed the company’s approach to marketing and advertising?

I’ll first start off with saying customer demand; it’s obvious that the iPhone changed the marketplace and it created interest for customers to do things that were simply beyond voice and text. At that time I’d really say RIM was probably leading the smartphone in space, so it became very clear that customers were choosing wireless carriers and staying with the wireless carrier first for network, but then second for device.

So we made a change to say we’ve got to have more smartphones in our lineup. We want to offer customers choice. We’ll continue to have the very best network and we’ll also have the very best lineup of devices. Our strategy today is that same strategy: to bring the best selection of devices to the very best network and deliver the best customer experience that we can on those devices.

And how would you say customer demand and your smartphone lineup has changed Verizon’s marketing and advertising?

It’s even more apparent with 4G LTE. What we have to do is show customers what devices can do and what the network enables them to do. It’s not simply about putting a device in the paper or TV, and having a service offer around it. You really have to showcase the capabilities of the devices so I think it’s harder work, but it lines things up perfectly with what Verizon Wireless does best, which is having a network that empowers customers to do that.

For many years, customers made their decisions often times on service pricing — Family Share for example. Then by device, but really, as I said, device and network are the two that have risen to the top. In advertising, our strategy for that is we have to make sure we hit those very hard and showcase what those two things, when you bring them together, can empower customers to do.

Verizon’s 4G LTE is by far the fastest 4G network I’ve tested. How do you basically break this down and convey it to consumers with so much noise in the 4G space now?

At the end of every day it’s about the reality of the customer voting for you in terms of picking you and staying with you, so they get that the network is the best. In terms of messaging to the marketplace, what you have to be able to do is showcase. And if you’ve seen some of our recent “Test Squad” columns, they’re showing cases of applications and things that you can do that really are real-life kinds of applications. You might have seen us shooting a rocket into a 4G hotspot but that’s not real life. You have to show customers what they can do with the network and that’s harder work as I said. It’s not just about putting a device and a price in the advertising.

You have to really showcase the application. But at the end of the day, the best way to win at this and rise above all of the noise is what we’ve done best, which is customers are voting with their loyalty for us and we’re getting the accolades that clearly state that we’ve built a network that is the best and the fastest out there.

How do you feel about the companies and carriers launching all these massive ad campaigns to market 4G networks based on 3G technology?

I think it catches up to you. At the end of the day, you can look at our first quarter performance and say we rose above that — and customers figure that out. We have the highest level of integrity in terms of making sure that what we say is what we do and vice versa. It’s all about the fact that customers see through that over time, and that’s where our focus is: making sure that we’re doing what’s right for the customers and giving them what they expect, and over-delivering.

I want to jump back to smartphones for a moment. How much of a role do you think Verizon and all the aggressive campaigns — the Motorola DROID campaign, for example,  was rumored to be a $100 million endeavor — but how does that play with all the explosive growth we’ve seen with Android over the past two years? And do you think that Verizon’s DROID brand is the most recognizable Android brand?

Let me just start with the importance of the work we did with Google and with Motorola. I think that you’re very familiar with this, but for many months if you look at prior to 2009 and the launch of the DROID, Android was in the market but really not accelerating at all. Then if you look at the time after we formed the strategic partnership with Google, who have obviously done business with Motorola for many years, you saw the hockey stick growth. So clearly we believe that Verizon Wireless and “DROID” were key in what’s happened in the marketplace, and we continued that strong partnership. I think the work that we’ve done together is critical, and then the effort that Verizon Wireless put behind it to make this happen was key.

From a DROID perspective, the DROID brand is very important. What it does is it represents the best product on the best network. Not every candidate that comes across my desk gets DROID status. We carry lots of Android devices but they don’t get the DROID status. For us, that is exclusively for the best products. I think it’s very important. When we put the DROID brand on a device, it outsells others. People understand what that means and we’ll continue to do that, but not all candidates get to be a DROID.

Speaking of the DROID campaigns, they’ve always been pretty masculine. Do you think this scares off some female consumers?

Being a female, I’d say, no [laughs]. We know that it does skew male. That clearly is true. But it doesn’t turn off or alienate the female population. We’ve done a lot of research on that to make sure we really understand that. I do think that there’s opportunity — without leaving what it stands for — to diversify a bit, but still have the same characteristics that have been known to be DROID, which are “powerful,” “formidable,” and “strength.” But those sorts of things can relate to male or female.

We just talked about how aggressive the campaign was for the DROID and all the marketing behind DROID. How is the approach with the iPhone different and why?

One of the strengths with Verizon Wireless is choice. That is really important to customers and the iPhone is a great compliment to our lineup. If you look to come into our location we have choice and it represents the best products. iPhone is a great compliment, clearly a great brand, and a great device that consumers want and expect to have on the best network. I would just tell you that bringing the iPhone to our lineup was a compliment to what we already do, which is putting the best devices in the hands of our customers.

Do Apple’s massive ad campaigns take care of most of the heavy lifting? Does the iPhone sell itself?

Having a great brand and a great device that has a great reputation clearly goes a long way, but I would tell you that it doesn’t sell itself. I think any of the devices require true customer satisfaction at the point of sale, wherever that might be, and the require clear communication and education for customers. Customers have different needs and it’s not a one-party game. So while a very strong product does very well at Verizon Wireless, I don’t think any device sells it self. We require that the people that sell out devices educate customers so we get them the right device the first time.

What is your view on tablets? Do you see them as a short-term trend or an eventual commodity?

We believe that the tablet space has enormous potential. If you’ve looked at some of our lineup lately, or some of the announcements we’ve made, we plan to make a leadership position out of this business. We think that it’s a growing category, and we will have the best lineup across the operating systems to make sure that we lead in this space. I don’t think it’s a trend… I think it’s just getting started.

What market segment do you think tablets appeal to most and why?

I don’t think it’s one particular market segment. We’ve seen success with various consumers, whether it’s young adults, or singles or married; whether it’s stay-at-home moms or working moms. In the enterprise space, we’re also seeing more adoption. For example, at Verizon Wireless we all carry tablets and we started to use tablets instead of paper in meetings, and a lot of people are not carrying laptops as much. It’s really crossing all segments.

We are definitely seeing the device goes back and forth from consumer to enterprise. For me, I use my device at work but I also take it home and it becomes something that I use in the evening for multitasking while I’m watching T,V or carrying with me on airplanes. I also let my six-year-old son watch videos. I don’t think it’s one segment or the other. We’re seeing growth across all segments, and then this duality with intertwining your business and personal life is happening as well. That’s why I think it has such good opportunity for future growth. Then you add an LTE component where you can do things that you couldn’t do before, or you can now use the tablet where you go because of the wireless connection, and I think it will have a big impact on growth.

Switching gears a little bit I just want to quickly talk about Windows Phone 7. You guys recently released your first Windows Phone, and the launch was pretty quiet. Will Windows Phones play a significant role in your lineup, and therefore marketing, moving forward?

The launch of our Windows device wasn’t significantly different than many of the devices we bring into our lineup. We’re very loud in the market today with 4G LTE, and since that device is only on our 3G network, we weren’t as loud in the marketplace. But it was very similar in terms of training and go-to-market preparation, as well as social and viral kinds of media — a lot of that you may not see in the general marketplace because there wasn’t TV presence. But we did do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, and there were resources and money spent to make sure we trained and launched it correctly.

On your second point, we have a very important relationship and partnership with Microsoft in general. We do many things with them and so our plan is to represent the smartphone lineup with Windows and we’ll continue to look for ways to work together. That continues to be an important partnership. It goes back to what I said earlier: what we want to represent at Verizon Wireless is choice for our customers, and this is another element of customers having a choice in device selection and operating systems.

Where does that leave you guys with RIM? If I’m not mistaken, Verizon Wireless was at one point the largest seller of BlackBerry devices in the U.S. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but you were a very, very large partner. With the company going through a transition period, do you see Research In Motion being a strong part of your lineup in the future?

I do. RIM is still very, very important in the enterprise space. It does resonate in some of the consumer space as well, particularly with BBM. We’ll have three devices this year that we will bring to market with RIM. We’ll continue our partnership and it’ll be important for now going forward.

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