Mary Dillon on Transitioning From McDonald’s to Mobile

U.S. Cellular has just launched its first marketing initiative since former McDonald’s CMO Mary Dillon joined the company as CEO this summer. Dubbed “The Belief Project,” the effort involves more than advertising; it aims to overhaul the industry’s operating model. Customers aren’t required to sign new contracts after their initial two-year pact expires, and a new loyalty program rewards them with points. The strategy predates Dillon’s arrival at the nation’s sixth largest wireless carrier, but it is very much in sync with the kind of customer-driven marketing she used at McDonald’s to increase share. Brandweek recently spoke with Dillon and company vp, marketing and sales operations Edward Perez about their plans to shake up the wireless world and Dillon’s move from hamburgers to handheld communications. Below are some excerpts.

Brandweek: What is the genesis of The Belief Project?
Mary Dillon:
It is a new way to do business, and we’re committed to it as the way to
do business. The idea is to earn customers’ business and loyalty and reward them for
that. We’re addressing many of the pain points they have with the wireless industry. Customers have benefits like “one and done” contracts or a rewards program where they can use points to upgrade their phones faster or get other things they want. We’ve simplified the pricing structure by bundling it. We are adding a phone replacement program [where certain premium plan customers get the same or similar handset replacement when a phone malfunctions]. One of the frustrations people can have are bill surprises, and we’ve gone after that with things like overage cap protection. You can even use your points to reduce a surprise cost overage, and customers can get up to a 5 percent discount if they do their bill paying online. The Belief Project dovetails nicely with the DNA of U.S. Cellular because we’re a very customer-focused, customer-innovative company.

BW: How long has The Belief Project been in development?
Edward Perez:
It goes back four years although we’ve been heading in this direction for awhile. About two and a half  years ago we came out with a new brand position under the
tagline “Believe in something better.” With that, we introduced new initiatives to let customers know that we understand how important their wireless devices are to them.

BW: Tell us about the new emphasis on social media at U.S. Cellular.
We’ve worked with associates who have volunteered to support our efforts on Facebook, and we’ve gathered a lot of good information from that and educated our consumers. We’re taking that further with things like The Project Lab ( where we can push unique content to them and directly ask for feedback about some of the things that still frustrate them. We’re also reaching out to bloggers who are interested in what U.S. Cellular has to bring to the marketplace. Traditionally we have had very minimal usage of these types of tools. Some of the ways we’ll expand it in the future will be through social media and digital improvements where we can gain valuable dialogue with consumers.

BW: Mary, what has the move to a new industry been like for you?
In terms of consumer products, I can’t think of anything more important in people’s lives than their cell phones–and eating. So the transition from McDonald’s to U.S. Cellular is natural when you think about what’s important to people and how they spend their lives. My priorities for the company are, first and foremost, that we make sure we’re supporting the launch of The Belief Project as well as we possibly can. It’s not a one-time thing; it’s not a gimmick. It has a lot of aspects to it, so we have to make sure our current and prospective customers fully understand because it’s quite a valuable offering.

BW: How much involvement do you have in marketing?
Between my team and our agency, Hal Riney & Partners, they’ve put this together in a world-class way. I was attracted to this [CEO] opportunity in part because this is a company that is very focused on differentiating through smart customer insights and strategy. So I felt like The Belief Project was absolutely the right thing. I probably have provided the team with a couple of pieces of guidance, but I’m running the whole company. Still, marketing is a very high priority for us and will be a critical part of how we focus going forward.

BW: What’s it been like changing corporate roles?
Prior to being CMO at McDonald’s, I was running a division at PepsiCo [Quaker Foods]. That was more of a general management than a marketing-specific role, so this is going back to what I’ve done in the past. What I try to do is take the best learning and experience I have from each role.