Hello – The Future is Calling

by Steve McKee

Mobile PhonesNinety-eight percent of American households have telephone access. Over the past 130 years, this once-revolutionary device has become so ubiquitous that we don’t realize how much of our modern lifestyle has been built around it, from ordering takeout to scheduling doctor appointments, from responding to polls to hanging up on telemarketers. The telephone is something that we – as consumers and as marketers – have always taken for granted.

Not so anymore. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that for the first time ever, cellphone-only households (20%) outnumber those with landlines alone (17%). And the trend towards wireless is gaining momentum. Nearly one third of 18-24 year olds live in households with no landline whatsoever, and – in a finding that seems odd on the surface – wireless-only households are more likely to include the poor, many of whom made the choice to eliminate their landline bill during the current recession.

This is a radical change with significant implications, not only for pizza makers and Yellow Pages companies, but for all marketers. Among the new dynamics:

  • The telephone is no longer a device tied to a household, but to an individual. That opens up a world of personalization, from packaging (my wife’s cell phone cover is pink) to performance (my daughter has a different ring-back tone for the weekend than the one she uses during the week) to pricing (there’s a payment plan to suit just about everyone’s needs).
  • The telephone (and the telephone number) is no longer a place-based device. Marketers that once relied on area code information to determine the location from where a customer was calling now can’t be so sure, as members of our increasingly mobile society take their cell numbers with them wherever they relocate.
  • The telephone is no longer just a telephone. Two-way voice communication has now given way to multiparty, multimedia (and even satellite) access, making the ability to speak to someone on the other end just one rather quaint feature. You may even be reading this blog on your phone.

Most of us are content to let the Apples, AT&Ts, Motorolas and Verizons of the world think about where this once single-purpose device should go next. But as my firm has discovered in working with clients in a variety of non-telecommunications categories, we can’t be content to let the future come to us.

With each technological advance comes new obstacles and new opportunities, and brands that pause to consider how they might leverage them are likely to find competitive advantage (and in some cases completely redefine the playing field).

Do you suppose there’s an iPhone app for that?


Steve McKeeSteve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at http://twitter.com/whengrowthstall.

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