Butler, Shine’s Value Focus Helps Shop Land Leap Unit

With big players infringing on Leap Wireless International’s niche of low-cost cell-phone service aimed at teens and young adults, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners’ eight-person team pitched only one idea to win the company’s Cricket Communications subsidiary’s $20-25 million account: simplicity.

Greg Stern, CEO of the independent Sausalito, Calif., agency, said its platform for Cricket played up the client’s unlimited flat rate for local calling.

Leap is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, from which it is slated to emerge this fall.

In a review that included finalists Suissa Miller, an Interpublic Group shop in Los Angeles, and independent Bernstein-Rein in Kansas City, Mo., client execs asked agencies to address how Cricket could convey its value proposition amid intensifying price competition, said director of marketing Aimee Irwin.

“When Cricket launched [in March 1999], we appealed to a lot of people who had not had wireless phones in the past,” Irwin said. “As price plans have come down, it hasn’t always been as easy for us to stand out.”

Executive creative director Mike Shine said the message “will be very friendly and approachable” and targeted at both customers and employees. “When a company is coming out of a difficult time and is doing much better, the opportunity is to rally the employees around the communication platform,” said Stern.

Even with a new agency, Leap has a tough road ahead, said Ken Hyers, senior wireless analyst for Boston research firm In-stat/MDR. While the client has been successful with its message that Cricket can be a land-line replacement (Leap claims that 37 percent of its customer base does not use a traditional phone), competitors’ bucket rates have made it hard for Leap to differentiate itself, Hyers said.

In addition, before filing for bankruptcy protection, Leap began expanding beyond second-tier markets to first-tier ones and going head-to-head with bigger wireless carriers such as Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless. And while Leap was one of the first to penetrate the teen and young-adult market, major carriers have begun targeting that demographic more directly, Hyers said.

“Leap is going to have to fight that much harder to gain market share,” said Hyers. “They could probably hang on for a while, but they are not in a strong position, and the industry isn’t in a major growth phase like it was a couple of years ago. … It will be tough for them and their ad agency.”

Cricket had been handled by The Johnson Group in Chattanooga, Tenn., which did not take part in the review, run by Select Resources International in West Hollywood, Calif.

“They were a great agency for launching all of our markets,” said Irwin. “As our brand has matured, and the market has continued to evolve, we thought it was a good time, particularly with the restructuring, to get a fresh look from a new agency.”

The Johnson Group’s work played off the Cricket name. One spot showed the insects stealing telephones from houses and was tagged, “Cricket. It could be your only phone.”

Butler, Shine’s first work for Cricket is expected to break in mid- to late-November. The media mix is still being determined, but it may include TV, radio and print, said Irwin.

Cricket becomes one of the largest clients for the 75-person agency, which claims $85 million in billings and counts among its clients VeriSign, Anchor Blue and Health Net.

Leap was spun off from Qualcomm in 1998. Cricket has more than 1.5 million customers in 20 states.