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5G wars: T-Mobile, AT&T & Verizon on how they are educating & differentiating


By Kenneth Hein | US Editor

June 25, 2021 | 7 min read

If you’ve watched broadcast TV recently, you’ve seen an ad for 5G. The three major carriers are blanketing the airwaves with promises, deals and the dream of lightning-fast internet. As part of our deep dive into all things mobile, The Drum checked in with each of the three top brands to find out how they are differentiating their product offerings and educating consumers about what 5G actually is.

5G wars

5G is almost here. Now it’s up to advertisers to explain why we need it

5G. 5G. 5G. The repetition of messaging surrounding the fifth generation technology for broadband cellular networks is unmissable. While American consumers understand inherently that this means faster internet, less buffering and a better experience for watching, searching and gaming, they are uncertain about when and how 5G will be delivered.

“Some of the operators have done things, from a marketing perspective, that have confused the public. That’s all contributed to missed expectations. It’s like, ‘when is it really coming?’” says Will Townsend, senior analyst, networking and security at Moor Insights & Strategy.

The answer: about 18 months, according to Townsend. T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are all on different paths of their 5G journey when it comes to building their cellular infrastructure, getting 5G-enabled phones into the hands of consumers and other factors. Moor says T-Mobile is in the lead thanks in part to the assets it acquired from Sprint, but it’s quickly becoming a level playing field with AT&T and Verizon moving fast. “5G isn’t like flipping a light switch ... [still] this is the fastest rollout of all the Gs.”

So how are the carriers communicating to consumers during this evolutionary, and soon to be revolutionary, moment? Here’s what each is currently highlighting:

AT&T touts the allure of better gaming and ActiveArmor

AT&T has adopted a multi-pronged approach. In addition to its typical value and service messaging which we are all accustomed to, it is looking at the benefits of enhanced gaming and security as differentiators.

“Our recent 5G marketing and advertising is tailored to providing the best value and has consistently focused on what’s most important to customers: fast, reliable, secure 5G,” says Jennifer Van Buskirk, AT&T’s senior vice-president for wireless marketing.

At the same time, it is working with platforms like Stadia that use low-latency, ultra-high-speed 5G network capabilities to unlock improved mobile experiences for consumers. It is dangling a free six-month trial to the service, which offers a library of more than 170 titles. “The low-hanging fruit is gaming,” says Townsend. “[The full arrival of] 5G is going to offer an unbelievable mobile gaming experience.”

AT&T is also leaning into security with AT&T ActiveArmor, “which provides 24/7 proactive network security to help stop threats before they get to you,” says Van Buskirk.

To prove just how fast 5G is, AT&T is installing networks at 17 stadiums and arenas by the end of the year. They will then show off 5G experiences with augmented reality features including the AT&T 5G StatsZone, which launched at the Chicago Bulls’s United Center, and the Emmy-winning 5G Holovision.

AT&T will also bring 5G to key airports, and it’s teamed up with Delta Air Lines to equip its 19,000+-plus flight attendants with 5G devices. “These are all experiences that are paving the way for the future, and we’re excited about what’s to come,” says Van Buskirk.

T-Mobile toasts its first-mover milestone with 5Gin

T-Mobile is taking a slightly different, and more irreverent, tack to show off that it is in the 5G lead. It hit a milestone this week as T-Mobile’s Extended Range 5G now covers 300 million people, and its Ultra Capacity 5G covers 150 million people.

To celebrate, it poured forth Ultra Capacity 5Gin and Extended Range 5Ginger Beer. The limited-edition beverages became available for purchase yesterday.

“We know there’s a lot of noise around 5G and that it’s confusing. We’re the leader in 5G, and most don’t know that,” says Julie Goldthwait, senior vice-president of brand, communications operations and analytics at T-Mobile. “So we’re focusing on ways to break through with people in timely, relatable ways. Like by introducing 5Gin to celebrate covering 300 million people. Or our latest ad, which shows T-Mobile covers more Interstate Highway miles with 5G than any other wireless provider ahead of summer road trips.”

Yes, this is a stunt. As were the drone shows last year that showed its coverage in the sky, and partnerships with brands like Betty Crocker. With Betty Crocker, they cooked up a layer cake that shows off all three layers of ‘clear 5G spectrum’ that T-Mobile provides: better, faster, stronger.

“As the Un-carrier, we do things differently – it’s in our DNA,” says Goldthwait. “The biggest challenge is by far and away all the noise and the confusing messages around 5G. We know consumers are tuning it out.”

Verizon offers virtual proof and real hardware offers

During a year where in-person events were limited, Verizon went out of its way to market 5G through activations that allow consumers to experience the event virtually. There was the virtual stadium in Fortnite during the Super Bowl, 5G portals during the Thanksgiving Day Parade and Oscars, and, most recently, an NHL series ‘Off the Ice’ that explains the relationship between on-the-ice action and off-the-ice technology.

“When it comes to consumer education, we humanize the network through our marketing, telling the stories of our engineers and customers,” says Kristin McHugh, senior vice-president of marketing activation, Verizon. “We know the best education is tangible use cases that showcase what Verizon 5G can do. We showcase how to implement the technology and bring it to life, and market it to the right audiences through best-in-class partnerships.”

Verizon is also working to accelerate getting phones in the hands of consumers. Earlier this month, it announced an offer that allows every customer to trade in an old phone, even cracked or broken, and get a 5G phone on them with its best unlimited plans. Ads for the initiative star Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon. AT&T and T-Mobile are also pushing new phone offers.

Verizon is aiming to support small businesses. Through July 31, they are doing ‘Summer Fridays for Small Business’. The program entails inviting small businesses to its stores for a free tech evaluation and special offers, including a 10-year price lock.

As 5G becomes more pervasive, there will only be more to get dialed up about, say Moor Insights & Strategy’s Townsend. He points to the huge benefits to enterprise as well as advances in telesurgery, autonomous driving and the internet of things. “5G had been a little bit of a letdown. But you’re going to start seeing some very innovative services built on 5G within the next 12 months.”

For more in-depth coverage on the present and future of mobile marketing, dial in to The Drum’s Mobile hub. And don’t forget to sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.

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