In the Corner With 'Gard Dog'

by James Gordon  on Monday, May. 28, 2007 12:00 am  

Audio: Click here to listen to MP3 audio of the complete interview. It lasts about 47 minutes.

Look below to read excerpts from Arkansas Business' interview with Windstream's CEO, Jeff Gardner.

Do people at Windstream still call you 'Gard Dog'?
(Laughs) There's a few guys that do, but not as frequently as when I earned that moniker over at Alltel.

What have been some of the milestones in Windstream's first year of operations?
Most of the milestones this year have been about the focus of the team [and] the results that we have put together ... We really out-performed the industry on a number of important metrics that I am really proud of, the first being access line losses. You know, we are in a business that we are losing access lines, and it was expected that more rural companies would lose less access lines than, say, the large urban companies. Well, Windstream outperformed everybody in the space, even CenturyTel and Citizens, who have less access lines per square mile than us. So we have really done a nice job leading the industry there. And then along with that we have led in broadband and digital television sales.

What we have spent our first year focus[ing] on is really organizing the business, driving a lot of momentum in terms of how we can become a better company. A big part of that is the brand advertising that we launched, the Windstream brand. I think that is a real important part of the story in our first full year. We built a brand from scratch and really launched our icon, the green '53 Chevy. It's really resonated with our customers, and I think it really does a nice job of describing Windstream in terms of, you know, we are a heritage company that brings great service, but one that is focused on new technology as well. And that's been a big part of our success this year.

When you look at our brand awareness compared to the numbers that we saw before the deal ... we are up very significantly. And so customers in our market know about Windstream, they know we are focused on the local markets, and they know what products and services we sell.

If you looked at this company a year ago, when it was Alltel and a non-strategic part of a large wireless company, there weren't a lot of people out there that thought about us as a complete telecom player that was in not only wireline phone service but also broadband and digital entertainment. And today, all of our customers understand what Windstream is about, and that is the full suite of products and the triple-play.

How do you measure that brand awareness? Through focus groups?
No, it's more sophisticated than that. We actually do statistically valid samples. We contract with a firm to go out and measure this on a quarterly or semi-annual basis where they go out, they benchmarked before we launched our brand ad campaign. It's really important as you spend advertising dollars, and we spent a lot.

How much has Windstream spent on marketing this year?
We've invested over $50 million in the Windstream brand. And so you want to know how effective that advertising is, and so you measure awareness, and then obviously the other thing is to look at your sales ... I think our marketing team has done an excellent job targeting the right kind of customers. We try to sell something with all of our brand advertising, so it's not just feel-good advertising. It's really the type of advertising that drives customers to our business. That's how we measure our effectiveness.

So we really felt like we used the opportunity to change the name to really create something very positive for the company. And the really nice part about it, being the CEO of the company, is that it's really resonated with our employees. They are really excited about Windstream ...

Was the marketing campaign created in house?
Well, it was a combination. I think that, you know ... when we developed the brand, we had about six weeks to do it, so it was an incredibly aggressive time frame. We hired a company out of New York, Lippincott & Mercer, to really help us come up with the mark and the brand. They came up with Windstream, you know, and we actively participated.

They came up with probably 800 potential names; we narrowed it down to six and then finally settled on Windstream, and we haven't looked back since. It absolutely felt right then, and it feels even better now.

And then we hired an ad firm in addition to Rick Crane, who's our chief marketing officer. He was the No. 2 guy at Alltel. He's got very, very deep experience in advertising and marketing. He's just been a wonderful source of ideas. He went, his team went out and we selected an ad firm called The Concept Farm, a real non-traditional advertising firm out of New York, just a little bit edgy, non-traditional, which what we wanted was someone who is really going to create something memorable.

And it was the collaboration between our marketing department and the Concept Farm that really created the advertising canvass: first, the icon, which is the truck, and then the advertising that followed it that has helped drive our sales.

But what I asked them to, the only thing that I asked our marketing department to do to was do something that was iconic in our advertising so that it would be memorable. A lot of advertising that you see, you see it once and then you forget it. And I didn't want, we didn't want to use a celebrity representative. We wanted something else that would be iconic and that could be in all our ads. Our ads are going to cover everything from safety and security to broadband and entertainment, but the consistency will always be this green truck.

And so we've got our icon that's recognizable, and that will help drive our brand awareness and help us sell. And so that's what I am really pleased about. Because, you know, the green truck probably won't get into any trouble. You know, like you do sometimes when you pick a star or a sports figure, you are really kind of linked to them.

Yeah, the truck probably isn't going to show up drunk with a stripper.
No. (laughs) You wouldn't think so ...



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