Through a series of community relations programs that fall under its Community Cares umbrella, U.S. Cellular has significantly enhanced the company’s image as a responsible corporate citizen while solidifying an extremely high rate of retention among its customers. The creation of community relations programs designed to help the homeless, abused, elderly, veterans and the average wireless consumer have clearly differentiated U.S. Cellular from its competitors as the wireless company that cares about the communities in which in operates.
What can a wireless carrier do to maintain or gain market share when larger competitors have significantly more advertising and marketing dollars to promote their own products and services? In the case of U.S. Cellular, it turned to community relations as a way of improving customer loyalty and retaining customers in an increasingly competitive marketplace. With the use of wireless phones growing dramatically over the past five years, competition is at an all time high. As the nation’s eighth largest wireless service provider, U.S. Cellular felt the pressure to maintain market share as more of the industry’s major players such as AT&T, Verizon and Cingular began entering its communities. Since these carriers are far larger than U.S. Cellular and invest more money in advertising, marketing and merchandising programs, many industry experts considered the company’s position precarious.
Through market research, customer surveys and panel discussions, U.S. Cellular confirmed that customer loyalty and customer satisfaction were extremely important factors in the communities in which it operated. Research showed that serving as a responsible corporate citizen and being actively involved in the community were two clear ways to differentiate the company from its many competitors. What resulted from these conclusions was a strategic shift to a series of annual community relations programs designed to help the homeless, abused, seniors, veterans and the general public. As the programs have grown and garnered strong media results, U.S. Cellular has established a stronger relationship with its customers and surrounding communities.
Design community relations programs to fit U.S. Cellular’s specific markets while utilizing existing service. Since the company’s markets varied so much in terms of demographics, every program had to be designed for mid to small-sized markets.
Build grass-roots support for each program by involving key third parties in each community such as local law enforcement, key government figures, etc.
Establish clear connection between the programs and U.S. Cellular so that the company could be recognized for its positive contributions to the community.
Create separate list of audiences for each program but always target the general consumer, advocacy groups and local government officials.
· Establish a high rate of retention among current customers.
· Position U.S. Cellular as a responsible corporate citizen through media awareness.
· Maintain and grow market share in each community.
· Position U.S. Cellular as a company focused on social concerns and issues of importance to its customers and associates.
· Conducted and analyzed proprietary national research to determine buying patterns.
· Arranged focus groups in key markets and conducted local research to determine social needs for program creation.
· Conducted one-on-one interviews with local community groups in all markets.
· Interviewed customers and associates to pinpoint important local issues.
· Analyzed PR and advertising trends of competitors in U.S. Cellular markets.
For each program, a complete strategy document that included key objectives, messages and tactics was developed. In addition, each campaign was supported by a promotional package that included press releases, media Q&A’s, topical background information, brochures, bill stuffers, PSAs, video b-roll, etc.
· Cellular Stars teaches elementary school students how to dial emergency 911 on a wireless phone. To date, more than 20,000 students nationwide have participated in the program.
· H.O.P.E. (Homeless Outreach Phone Effort): reconnects the homeless and underprivileged with friends and family over the holidays by providing free calls.
· Mobile Manners: developed in response to the national outcry against “rude” cell phone users, this nationwide campaign educates consumers on how to become responsible and courteous users of wireless phones when in public settings.
· S.A.F.E. (Stop Abuse from Existing): provides victims of domestic violence and elderly abuse with wireless phones preprogrammed to emergency 911 and cellular voice mailboxes so family, caseworkers, lawyers, etc., can leave secure messages.
· V.A.L.O.R. (Veterans and Loved Ones Reconnect): brings wireless phones to VA hospitals, VFWs, American Legions and other organizations on Veterans Day to assist veterans in making free phone calls to family and friends.
· Wireless Road Rules: teaches consumers eight important safety principles to observe if operating a wireless phone while in a car.
U.S. Cellular led the industry in 2001 with a customer retention rate above 98 percent.
Despite growing competition in its markets, U.S. Cellular remained the dominant carrier in almost of all its markets.
U.S. Cellular received more than 6,000 media placements that featured the company’s programs and solidified the company’s image as a responsible corporate citizen.
In 2001, U.S. Cellular increased company awareness by receiving 12 national and 10 local community awards for its community outreach programs.