Oliver McAteer
Apr 16, 2020

'Actions, not ads': AT&T's Fiona Carter on how the brand is dominating relevancy

The telecoms giant is answering some of the world's biggest problems in the most authentic way.

'Actions, not ads': AT&T's Fiona Carter on how the brand is dominating relevancy

Be honest; you probably didn’t care about AT&T a month ago.

I didn’t. 

And that’s okay. The brand was never necessarily top of mind for any reason other than offering a plethora of communications services. But a global pandemic has rewritten everything you thought you knew about AT&T. This telecoms giant is cementing itself as a category leader delivering meaningful messaging and tangible aid in a time of crisis. 

In short, consumers have asked companies to step up, and this one has climbed up the whole ladder in a matter of days. 

"It became very clear to me that we needed to adjust and focus on how we as a brand and business can support and solve issues for our customers, rather than the traditional selling that we normally do," said Fiona Carter, chief brand officer at AT&T from her isolation station in New York.

"We’ve been focused on supportive practical solutions that are helpful in the time of COVID-19 -- actions, not ads."

It’s hard to keep track of the action AT&T has taken since coronavirus took hold. It came racing out the gate in early March as one of the first companies in its sector to waive internet data caps for customers as countless Americans moved to a work from home environment. The marketing team didn’t shout about it and there was no campaign behind it -- they just did what needed to be done (and reaped the PR benefits from organic coverage as people scramble for news about what companies are doing to make their lives easier in a COVID-19 world). 

This was swiftly followed by multiple drives to underscore its work across three pillars: family; business and; first responders. It changed the brick and mortar experience by bringing its retail stores to us with product delivery, express shipping and curbside pickup. It committed millions of dollars to institutions and incubators creating long-distance learning tools for the education sector. It vowed to provide three months of free wireless service for frontline nurses and physicians nationwide on the FirstNet network – built in a public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority.

"We thought very carefully about how we could communicate in an authentic way," said Carter. "Everything changes so quickly, so you’re having to constantly calibrate and adjust what the right messaging looks like. That’s the challenge you have. 

"Our goal is to be as relevant as possible for our customers and we’ve tried to do that in a way that makes our storytelling distinctive. That’s being true to the time. In almost all of our ads you’ll notice that the shots are very recent and every person feels real."

This is a huge tribute, she said, to a strong partnership with AT&T’s thousands of employees (who’ve been sending in footage and photos of the work they’re doing), its agency partnership with BBDO and CNN’s branded content shop Courageous Studios.

Carter, like many marketers at this time, said this coalition has learnt to create at unthinkable speeds as AT&T looks to tell multiple chapters of its story every week because of the rapidly-changing landscape.

She explained: "You start with wanting to be empathetic and understanding of the situation and demonstrate that we’re here for our customers and connected together, but fast-forward a couple of weeks and you realize that there are situations that we’re all united by -- whether that’s kids sitting cheek-by-jowl with their parents and everybody trying to work or learn in a very small space. 

"Schooling at home is not only a challenge but it’s spun mayhem that is an experience that unites every family, and we try to bring some of that levity to our advertising so we can explain that we understand what families are going through right now. 

"You’ll see that evolution in tone through the work; it starts with a somber acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation and the gratitude toward those on the front lines, but I think it has evolved to a place where it’s okay to inject laughter and to have a moment of bonding over some of the crazy mayhem."


It’s mayhem Carter knows firsthand. The chief brand officer said there is no stopping her cat from waltzing into her Zoom calls, nor can she halt the endless cameos her children play in leadership meetings. 

She said to see a little deeper into everybody’s personal lives has been a shining light of this experience for those who have the privilege of working from home. 

"As a global marketing organization, we’ve never felt closer," stressed Carter, who underscored the painless WFH-adjustment and a tighter bond with BBDO.  

"The last few weeks have taught us to focus on what really matters as a coalition to pour our energies into putting the customer first and communicating the right stories of the right actions we’re taking. 

"Doing that together and under the stresses of the current situation I think you just focus in a much more effective manner on what needs to get done. We’ve never been more effective or felt more camaraderie with our agency -- they have been with us every step of the way. The intensity of the workload has not let up, and they’ve never been more creative, more inventive and more capable than they are right now."

You’d think with TV viewer numbers sky-rocketing nationwide AT&T would triple-down on this sort of media space. But that’s not necessarily the case. Part of the company’s new-found magic is popping up in our lives in the most relevant and authentic way. On Sunday, it appeared in John Krasinski’s "Some Good News" -- a popular YouTube show still in its infancy which only celebrates positive headlines. And on Tuesday night AT&T was the subtle sponsor for HBO’s "Sesame Street: Elmo’s Playdate" where characters addressed the impact of COVID-19 with a young audience. 

But as AT&T charges full-steam ahead in the eye of this storm, it must also plan for a post-pandemic world.

"We need to prepare and prime for a COVID-19 recovery," said Carter. "What I’m most focused on is truly understanding the great habit change this pandemic has brought about. For me, what is fascinating is which of these habits will change permanently and which are an acceleration of consumer behavior trends that we’d already begun to see."

This electric streak of meaningful marketing and applicability has teed up the company for a powerful aftermath. I know I’ll be reviewing my phone provider when all this is over.


Campaign US

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