Verizon’s CMO on 5G, Back-to-School and the Pandemic-Era Trends Here to Stay

This October, Diego Scotti will mark 6 years at the tech company

As consumers' relationship to technology shifts due to Covid-19, Diego Scotti said 5G couldn't arrive at a better time. Sean T. Smith for Adweek

Covid-19 has upended the way consumers interact with brands in many different industries. For Verizon, a telecommunications company that’s recently transitioned into a tech brand as it expands its offerings outside of network coverage, the pandemic has changed how its customers engage with their network, for both technology and work-related needs.

Diego Scotti, Verizon’s chief marketing officer, sat down to discuss what that shift has looked like for the company, how it’s changed its messaging to better reach consumers and what’s next for the industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: As consumer behavior has shifted due to Covid-19, how has Verizon changed its messaging?
Diego Scotti: In a way, what we do has become so much more critical for what’s going on right now and how people are living their lives, from the way they are consuming entertainment into the way they’re doing [their work]. It’s always been about the sense of quality, and offering a product that has reliability so people can do whatever they want to do and have the experience they want to have. Ten years ago was about dropping phone calls while you were driving somewhere, today it’s about making sure that you can do your work or have good entertainment or connect with others without having any interruptions. Even beyond that, what we see is this stuff we thought was going to happen maybe a few years from now, like telehealth or remote education or remote work.

This is like five years in five months because we’ve seen a tremendous level of versatility in the ways companies and consumers are using the technology, but also adaptation that would have taken much, much longer is completely accelerated.

Our whole strategy as a company is predicated on two things: one is what we call network-as-a-service, and then the experiences that are being built on top of that network. Our partnership with Disney Plus is a great example: People are trusting us to bring in the experiences that surround the network and curate that for them.

While things are still very uncertain with regard to schools reopening, what can you share about how Verizon is planning to support kids and teachers and parents this year?
First of all, there is so much uncertainty, and every state and every school district is also very, very different. We’re working directly with a lot of school districts—Los Angeles school district is a good example—to provide the connectivity, and then the hardware that the schools need. That’s one foundational level.

The second is Verizon Innovative Learning. It’s a program that we started five years ago; we have 150 schools already across the country. And we take the school, and for two years, we implement this program that includes the connectivity, the devices for every student, and then a curriculum for teachers to teach through technology. That program has been extremely successful, especially because it’s focused on lower-income schools. As those schools come back, our program is perfectly positioned to provide a level of support, especially for the kids that need it the most.

The third layer is more specific to this moment that we live in, is [that] there are components of Verizon Innovative Learning that are perfectly positioned for virtual scale. The team is working right now on how do we think about taking curriculum in terms of teaching teachers to teach remotely and make it available to anybody, or every school district. More to come on that, but that’s primarily where we’re focusing. People are ready; what they need is the tools. That’s where we can have tremendous added value.

There is so much misinformation out there about 5G. I’m curious about Verizon’s strategy to combat that misinformation. Where are you engaging with people on educating about 5G—what it is and what it’s not—and how are you looking to connect with them to break through the noise?
Well, there’s no evidence of any kind that 5G creates any of the effects on health or safety that some of those conspiracy theories describe. It’s completely ridiculous that a virus like Covid could be transmitted through 5G—I mean, there’s no way that millimeter waves of wireless technology can carry a virus of any kind, 5G or no 5G.

So, we’re doing a lot of education with the press with the informers, and key institutions that can help us spread the truth. With consumers and businesses, it’s about conveying the potential of 5G beyond what people might think. 5G is a technology that is really going to transform everything.  Very soon, the second half of this year, 5G is going to be real. More devices are going to be available with 5G, so it’s going to be about the applications that consumers and businesses are going to be able to then use with 5G.

When we’re thinking about all the new consumer needs that have cropped up in the midst of the pandemic, are there certain things about 5G technology that’s going to make addressing those needs more efficient? Is it coming at a particularly appropriate time.
Yes, 100%. The time we are in right now is kind of like the fully networked economy. All of those trends that we were seeing maybe a year ago, six months ago, in terms of like how people were going to work, play, the cloud connected to 5G, multi-edge computing—all of those things are going to be real, and they couldn’t come at a better time. 5G and Verizon are going to be part of the post-Covid recovery of the economy, the re-ignition of the economy. It’s almost like catching the wave at the right time. In October I’ll have been at Verizon for six years, and I’ve never been more excited about the potential of what we’re doing.

When it comes to the consumer’s relationship to technology and tech brands, what do you think are the biggest changes that we’ve seen so far during the pandemic that will stick around even after things go back to some kind of relative normal?
A lot of what we’ve seen during the pandemic and the social injustice crisis and all that has been about, what would you do is, in a lot of cases, more important than what you say. And what you say better be rooted in stuff that is true, that is based on substance. Truth as the best marketing is a trend that I think is going to continue because I think consumers are a little bit saturated by the BS that comes with marketing. I don’t mean that things need to be boring and serious all the time, but marketing needs to be based on truth.

The second thing is virtual experiences. I think some of the dogmas around experiences being either physical or digital with no crossover have been proven incorrect. One of the things that I think we learned from this is that people are very adaptable and consumers can get there, if you take them there.

The third thing for me is when you have the opportunity to create a new playbook, you have to take risks. Consumers are smart and sometimes the only thing they need from you is that truth combined with a way to engage and they’ll take it from there. As a consumer, me personally, I want to be treated like an adult.

One of the things that to me is more interesting is that all the words that we use in marketing to describe what we do, they’re all push words. I want to market to you. I’m going to promote to you. I’m going to sell to you. They’re all push words, and no words that are about how am I gonna pull you in. I think that’s something that, from a “where marketing is going” perspective, to me that’s something that as marketers we need to be very aware of—that kind of marketing [is] going to soon be part of the past.

@klundster Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.