Q&A: Verizon Wireless EVP and group president Ronan Dunne

Sean Czarnecki catches up with Verizon Wireless' Ronan Dunne as he attempts to port O2's British "customer-led, mobile-first" approach across the Atlantic to the U.S.

What were your first steps as leader?
I’m in listening mode. Like any new leader, my priority is to build that 100-day plan with depth and insight.

Verizon is hugely successful with a strong heritage, and I bring the perspective of someone from a highly competitive U.K. market, where O2 differentiated itself from its competitors with a customer-led, mobile-first approach. It’s about finding the DNA of the Verizon brand and culture and building on that with the perspective I bring from Europe.

What do you mean by mobile-first?
Wireless affords customers the opportunity to be connected all the time, whether in a business or consumer sense, and to access the experiences one wants in real time. Although the technology is out there, and video and content are part of how Verizon differentiates itself, the first part is bringing the ubiquitous connectivity of wireless to life in a way that makes a difference for customers.

How will Yahoo integrate with Verizon Wireless?
That would very much be for [Verizon’s EVP and president of product innovation and new businesses] Marni Walden. I imagine she and her team are building advertising, brand, and insight to bring greater value to all Verizon customers. The opportunity is to harness data we normally process and bring it to life for customers. If it’s done well, it’s a concierge service rather than simply a marketing campaign.

Did you face similar situations at O2?
We did in a small way, but not through acquisition. We developed an advertising business called Weve with a similar insight: developing first-party observed preferences of your customers is so much more than third-party inferred preference.

When Beyoncé came to the U.K., we took over all marketing for that tour and offered it to our O2 customers as a priority experience, with over 70% of tickets sold done through an O2 priority program. Customers felt at the front of the line in a money-can’t-buy experience and were treated as VIPs.

How do you leverage the profile of being the most visible member of Verizon’s workforce to benefit the company?
My role is chief cheerleader and chief storyteller. Going around the business in these early months talking to people will help me develop the Verizon narrative.

It also means bringing the brand and its richness to life so customers understand the value of their relationship with Verizon. Internally, that helps ensure everyone feels they’re part of a common narrative, aligned to what we’re doing, making a difference for customers, and contributing to writing the Verizon story.

Considering the distinct nature of telecoms in the U.K. and U.S., what challenges do you anticipate in comms and marketing?
The U.S. is not one homogeneous market — it is multiple markets. There is interesting segmentation, with different subgroups more aligned to one brand vs. another or one form of advertising vs. another. They also differ in their needs and the ways they use technology.

A lot of U.S. advertising is strongly oriented around comparative advertising and celebrity endorsements. At O2 we developed a narrative around what the brand does for the individual, not trying to compare it on a code and analytical sense of "I’ve got more based stations or whatever." If it all works, customers know that, and that’s the beauty of Verizon. With the best network, it does work.

The battle between the Big Four centers on how customers feel about a brand. Sprint and T-Mobile have set their sights on Verizon. How will you respond?
There’s a lot of conversation around personality in the brands, and a lot of confusion around the brands themselves and personalities that represent them.

The brand should represent all its customers. In the U.S. there’s a danger that gets overshadowed by the strong individual personalities representing the brands.

I’ve looked at how we make sure the brand conversation is a personal narrative without being distracted by celebrities, egos, or other things. Ultimately, it’s about the customer’s relationship with that brand, not who runs the brand or was in the last advert.

T-Mobile has bitten a chunk out of the market, adding 1 million postpaid customers for 13 consecutive quarters. How do you stem the bleeding?
Where you have marketing that involves a lot of celebrity endorsements, it’s not unnatural for individuals inside an organization to be part of that. That’s not really the Verizon way, nor is it the O2 way.

Delivering consistent performance is about meeting and exceeding customers’ needs. The foundation of that is building a brilliant network. We’ll continue to build on that base with our customer service experience, the way we reward our customers for their loyalty, among other things.

There will always be challengers, and that’s good for customers. But it’s ultimately about what customers truly value, which is rarely defined by price only, but a range of characteristics: price, performance, capability, trust, reliability. I’ll make sure we speak to customers and future customers so they understand the richness of Verizon’s value proposition. If we do that well we should be confident about our performance.

What will the comms function look like at Verizon?
I’ll sit down with the comms team and define its narrative, rather than re-engineer its function.  But I don’t expect a material change in structure in our operating model.

At O2, I harnessed the power of comms in the chief cheerleader/chief storyteller position, and committed 20% of my time to campaigning and taking a broader conversation of national interest, such as how CEOs contribute to the social agenda, so you get that balance of a company doing well and doing good.

(Dunne could not be reached for follow-up questions on Verizon's demand that its 11 agencies diversify their workforces).

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