The 5G advertising challenge

I don’t specifically recall when my mobile phone network moved from 3G to 4G. 4G arrived in India around 2012 and I don’t recall a pricing difference (at least in my Airtel post-paid connection) between the 2 networks or even being given a choice to pick the newer one over the older network.

Now, 5G is imminent. It has already been rolled out in many other countries, but India is awaiting 5G in the next few months.

The question is this: how are the telecom networks planning to convey 5G’s value proposition?

I’d assume that the telcos may want to offer 5G as a premium product and perhaps have a pricing difference over 4G to make that difference explicit. This is one of the few ways they can increase their ARPU (average revenue per user).

1. 5G first wave to ride on higher data traffic capacity, top-end subscribers (The Economic Times)
2. Telcos, gaming cos gear up for revenue boost as 5G nears (Mint)

But what is the difference and how can that be conveyed in a way that users are interested/compelled to pay a premium to acquire it, at least in the earlier days of 5G?

To understand that, let’s look at what telcos communicated for the earlier networks like 3G and 4G.

Remember Idea’s Abhishek Bachchan starrer where he offers education to children in remote villages through a phone that broadcasts the teacher’s voice?

This ad is from 2008 and it made the rounds in mid-2020 because the pandemic had brought this scene into reality! But there was a crucial difference: In 2008, the idea (from Idea) was about voice becoming the teacher in remote places. Because that was what 3G could have supported. During the pandemic, video calling proliferated, leading to ‘meetings’ defaulting to video calls instead of a physical, face-to-face meeting. Schools continued, where possible, through video calling. This is because 4G and broadband supported it.

Or, consider the Airtel ad from 2015 where the nation got collectively tired of watching Sasha Chhetri again and again!

Instead of showing us use cases of 4G, this one showcased which was faster – a rival network (which may or may not be 4G) or Airtel 4G? It was the latter, of course.

Reliance Jio had a more literal idea to showcase that their 4G untethers people 🙂

To a large extent, 4G was eased into our lives our a long period of time, say, between 2012 and 2016/17 period after which telcos stopped talking about it in specific.

We associated 4G with video calls, mostly. However, faster download speeds (demonstrated by the speed in Mbps (megabit per second) and MBps (megabytes per second) were also a facet in 4G communication since 3G used to be demonstrated with Kbps and KBps.

So, what would the telcos associate with 5G?

Video calls are passe.
Faster downloads? Passe.

Without a headline feature or use-case, telcos may find it difficult to not just sell 5G, but also position it as a premium feature worth paying extra for.

Take a look at what some of the international telcos are showcasing in the name of 5G, so far.

The Canadian telco, Bell (agency: Lg2, May 2021) showcases 5G as stutter-free real-time gaming. As the guy is struggling to play the game on his phone, the game manifests itself alongside his bus, as a creative device to showcase that it won’t stutter in 5G.

Orange France’s February 2021 campaign (agency: Publicis Conseil, France) takes a more thematic approach – it frames the possibilities of 5G as ‘what we will do with it’, leaving it to our imagination. And that imagination is given some cues through the gaggle of kids running amok inside a museum. Of course, you may guess what is really happening there and that is how the ad ends 🙂

Vodafone Portugal’s February 2021 campaign (agency: WundermanThompson, Lisbon) takes the Orange story to another level – the theme is virtual presence. That idea is brought beautifully alive by showing a person being in place A, while her usually expected physical presence in place B is through her virtual self. It’s not very different from showing video calls as a demonstration for seamless and fast internet connection, but the articulation of the idea is both futuristic and alluringly different. It’s still in a ‘is that really possible?’ zone, but that ambiguity is perhaps what they were aiming for with the potential of 5G in this ad.

Verizon US’s ‘5G just got real’ (agency: TBWA\Media Arts Lab) is as flashy and showy as it gets. There’s a celebrity, there’s a lot of ideas thrown in, and nothing specifically sticks as a stand-out reason for ‘Why 5G?’.

The September 2020 T-Mobile Netherlands ad (agency: Anomaly Amsterdam) gets a lot more specific and imaginative to showcase the power of 5G! Instead of simply showing a video call, they showcase a tattoo artist remotely operating a robot to render a tattoo in another location! You wouldn’t trust a spotty network for such a delicate task, right? That’s what they are aiming to communicate, specifically.

The same narrative was later used by the UK-based telco EE, to showcase their 4G and 5G speeds, in May 2021 (agency: Saatchi & Saatchi)! The only difference was that the tattoo was replaced a remote shaving act through a robot!

So what would the Indian narrative for 5G be, from the only 3 remaining telcos in the country?

The aim would be to get people to pay a premium (that is, if the telcos are not simply looking to move everybody en masse from 4G to 5G, and want to squeeze some extra revenue by positioning 5G as being markedly better).

In other words, what use case for 5G would capture the imagination of us Indians and view 5G not merely as an incremental technology but as a transformational leap worth paying some premium for?

For the power users, like gamers, the move would be almost instant – the telcos don’t even need to sell 5G to them. But, for normal users?

Merely showing an increase in MBps may not cut it. Airtel has been using that creative device with the help of Ookla to showcase how fast their home broadband service is. Just transposing that same creative device to mobile internet may not provide them that leap in perception.

Seamless internet (or stutter-free internet) can’t be the core idea either. To a large extent, we have been already used to that considering much of work and education moved, wherever possible, to the internet during the pandemic. So, merely showcasing lag-free connectivity on mobile may seem, at best, incremental, or at worst, unimpressive to demand premium pricing.

From what I read online, 5G seems more poised to change enterprise and business internet than consumer internet. So, things like automated driving and remote surgery top the news when it comes to the power of 5G.

Some of the clear markers used to define 5G, across telcos, include,

  • 3G: cycle; 4G: scooter; 5G: rocket
  • 3G: Kbps/KBps; 4G: Mbps/MBps; 5G: GBps/Gbps

My guess is that the Indian telcos are likely to use a combination of the movement from K(bps) to M(bps) to G(bps) as an easy-to-understand marker for speed.

On top of that, there may be an opportunity to showcase the power of 5G via sharper video transfer during video calls. For instance, while on a video call with someone else, I can see clearly something small in the background and ask something about it. This may not be possible in the current video calls on 4G (though this may be possible on faster broadband connections at home).

There is potential in extending the clearer and sharper video call narrative. Grandparents getting a much sharper view of their grandchildren and getting all emotional is one narrative possibility (though, all this could be argued with faster home broadband too!). Of course, this needs to be supported by appropriately good mobile handsets too.

The core idea would be to showcase that with 5G, video calls need not look and sound like mere *calls* – with grainy/blurred/poorer video quality and tinny sounds. 5G video calls could be positioned as *telepresence*, something that Cisco touted back in the mid-2000s. The visual and imagery could evoke the *presence* of someone far away in a clearer sense, and don’t look or feel like present-day *video calls*.

The actual business-centric potential of 5G—like AR/VR, drones, automated vehicles, etc.—is perhaps not adequately fascinating for consumer users.

I really look forward to the upcoming 5G advertising blitzkrieg – it’s a terrific narrative and creative challenge for the advertising and PR industries.