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09 Apr 12 AT&T Spending More on Lumia Launch Than on It Did on iPhone

Get ready for another big smartphone campaign. For ATT, it’ll be even bigger than the one for iPhone.

ATT Lumia” /

In the coming months, ATT will kick in as much as $150 million to help launch Nokia’s Windows Phone Lumia 900, Ad Age has learned, topping its outlay for the ubiquitous Apple device.

Big backing was a no-brainer for Nokia and Microsoft, players that have been pummeled in the extremely competitive, extremely lucrative smartphone market and are teaming up to compete with Apple, Samsung and Google. Less obvious is that the device may be equally crucial for ATT, the phone’s sole carrier.

ATT wouldn’t comment on Lumia spending, but $150 million isn’t small change even for the No. 2 biggest spender in the country, which wielded $3 billion in advertising in 2010, according to Ad Age DataCenter. So why exactly would ATT bet so big on a largely unknown, underdog device?

Blame it on iPhone. Since ATT had to start sharing the Apple product with Verizon early last year, its biggest rival has been adding smartphone subscribers faster. That’s trouble, because carriers are looking to smartphone owners’ profitable data plans to propel growth as other revenue streams dry up.

“The bulk of the growth for carriers is coming from smartphone subscribers,” said Chris Larsen, telecom analyst for Piper Jaffray. “They generate higher monthly recurring fees and more revenue.”

In 2007, ATT became the sole carrier of the iPhone and quickly amassed more smartphone subscribers than any of its competitors, including Verizon, (though Verizon had more total wireless customers on all devices). But ATT is quickly losing its early lead.

In January 2011, before ATT lost iPhone exclusivity, it had more than 24.7 million U.S. smartphone subscribers over the age of 13, according to ComScore. Verizon had only 17.8 million.

This February, about a year after iPhone became available on Verizon, its smartphone subscribers had increased 81%, to 32.2 million. Though ATT’s smartphone pool is still larger, it grew only 37% in the period, to 33.8 million.

Now that Verizon is nipping at its heels, ATT needs another dog in the smartphone fight. That dog will most probably not be Android for ATT, even though half of U.S. smartphone owners chose Google’s mobile software. Verizon has practically become synonymous with Android thanks to its popular Droid line. While ATT was busy promoting iPhone (which it did, heavily, before losing exclusivity), Verizon invented Droid and pushed it aggressively to sell that brand of smartphones. And it worked.

“You can tell when you walk into a Verizon store they’ve made a lot of money selling Android—that’s what they’re promoting,” said Forrester Research analyst Sarah Rotman Epps.

In February, 57% of Verizon smartphone subscribers had Android devices, more than the national average, according to ComScore. That compared with just 19% for ATT. On the flip side, a whopping 63% of ATT smartphone subscribers have iPhones vs. one-quarter of Verizon’s.

That’s where Microsoft’s Windows Phone comes in. ATT has secured a jump on distributing Windows Phone now that it is the exclusive carrier for Lumia 900, which reviewers call the best such phone to date. In addition to Nokia’s campaign, ATT will be running ads on national TV and in other media for Lumia. While there will be links between the campaigns, ATT’s effort will be aligned with its “Rethink Possible” brand positioning. Forrester has found that smartphone buyers consider the carrier first, software next and the manufacturer last, said Ms. Epps.

BBDO is ATT’s creative agency. Butler Shine Stern Partners and Wunderman are handling Nokia’s North American campaign for Lumia.

“We are taking North America and U.S. market very seriously,” said Valerie Buckingham, Nokia’s head of marketing-North America. “ATT has a lot running on the success of 900 as well.”

In a preorder promotion, ATT enticed new subscribers with a free Lumia 900. The company has said the phone will receive “prime exposure” in its 2,200 stores. That’s crucial for Nokia, as 80% of sales are made via the carrier, said Ms. Buckingham. ATT salespeople are receiving special training on Lumia, including face-to-face sessions for 4,500 sellers, and the company has distributed an “unprecedented” number of the devices to sellers, she said.

“With our operator partners, we’re seeing a lot of support and desire for a third ecosystem,” said Ms. Buckingham. “We’re definitely stepping up to the stage at the investment you need to be successful in this category. You will definitely be seeing this campaign.”

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