Phone Tag

Phone Tag

photo: Scott Council
Matt Carter (Photo by Welton B. Doby III)

In 2004, the “Where You At?” campaign distinguished Boost Mobile from other prepaid companies in the ultra-competitive wireless communications arena. Featuring hip-hop luminaries such as Ludacris, Kanye West, and The Game, these video-styled commercials promoted the brand’s walkie-talkie feature. This savvy, catchy, and engaging approach captured the imaginations and wallets of its urban audience in the coveted 18—34 demographic, with most users under the age of 26. At the time, this successful campaign was considered a no-brainer for the marketing arm of the no-contract division of parent company Sprint Nextel. In fact, Boost received “street cred” through an unexpected marketing push from the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire. In the Baltimore-based show, Boost represented the wireless service the local crime syndicate used for drug trafficking.

Executives admit the association wasn’t the division’s finest moment. To make matters worse, Sprint would experience a tailspin a few years later due to internal restructuring and external competitive pressures. It would take the bold leadership of 20-year marketing strategist Matt Carter to dial up the winning strategy for Boost’s revenue and market share growth while positioning Sprint to dominate the prepaid market.

Recruited from his own entrepreneurial venture in 2006 to head Sprint’s customer service department as senior vice president of base management, Carter, 48, joined the telecommunications giant during a rocky period. Then-CEO Gary Forsee had overseen Sprint’s merger with Nextel in 2005 but hadn’t proven adept at managing a smooth operational transition. That same year Sprint lost more than 1 million customers; its board decided it was time for new management. In 2008, Dan Hesse, a respected leader in the wireless industry, became Sprint’s new CEO and initiated a reorganization plan that included slashing some 4,000 jobs and making several management shifts.

Carter assumed the role of Boost’s senior vice president and general manager with oversight of marketing, sales, finance, and product distribution. “I was brought in because we saw the no-contract wireless category as a significant growth opportunity, and we were not participating in that growth.” To do that Boost needed a broader customer segment. “We were a niche product in the fastest growing segment of wireless. We needed to capture the Walmart shopper. One-third of all prepaid phone service plans are sold at Walmart.”

By 2009, Carter was instated as division president with a specific mandate: Make Boost a growth engine for Sprint in the prepay segment. “Matt had previous experience in prepaid and in brand marketing, making him a great match for the job of repositioning Boost,” explains Hesse. “Because of his Sprint experience, he also understood how Boost could be unique, yet still be consistent with Sprint’s brand pillars of simplicity and value.”

Carter has initiated a three-prong strategy to turn around Boost’s competitive standing: Reposition the brand from its urban consumer target to the general market; increase distribution outlets; and change the plan offered to customers. His approach worked. He’s unveiled a new slate of celebrity endorsers including NASCAR phenom Danica Patrick to introduce Boost Unlimited, a national $50 plan minus contracts, taxes, and activation fees. By the second quarter of 2009 Sprint added 777,000 new prepaid customers.