In Search of the Uneconomy

Dissecting T-Mobile’s “uncarrier” strategy.

March 19 2013 by Joe Queenan


At the recent International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, John J. Legere, the new CEO of T-Mobile USA, said that he wanted his company to stop acting like a wireless carrier and start thinking like an “uncarrier.” Whereas a carrier would simply present customers with a take-it-or-leave-it list of contracts and payment plans, a company with an “uncarrier” mentality would rethink its relationships with consumers, giving the people what they want at the price they want it—or a price in that general ballpark.

Legere, a casual dresser par unexcellence, also said that he had summarily ended the ban on tattoos and piercings in T-Mobile USA retail outlets because he wanted to build a company aimed at young people and, more to the point, a specific kind of young person.

“We want the young customers, the ones who want to be a little different, who want to flow with the data surge that’s coming and want the latest smartphone devices,” he told The New York Times. Presumably, people over 30 or people who didn’t like to be waited on by salespeople festooned with tattoos and piercings could go and shop elsewhere. This would also hold true for people who specifically do not wish to flow with the data surge but only want to buy a cheap phone with a cheap calling plan. These people are sometimes referred to in the trade as “deadbeats” or “uncustomers.”

There is something very appealing about the idea of a wireless “carrier” abruptly turning itself into an “uncarrier.” It suggests that a car company, languishing in fourth place behind its rivals, could turn on a dime and become an “uncar” company; that the Olive Garden, in a bid for a younger, hipper clientele, could rebrand itself as the UnOlive Garden, that poky, inept, reviled Amtrak could rebrand itself as UnAmtrak, even though the very sound of the word UnAmtrak could put off a few prospective customers. Other tantalizing candidates for 180-degree image overhauls include undiversified holding companies, unpenny stocks, unbanks, unhealthcare providers and unundertakers. Meanwhile, the friendly skies of United could become the friendly skies of UnUnited. Or something.

In seeking to differentiate itself from its larger, more staid competitors, T-Mobile USA is wise to go after younger, bolder, more adventurous customers. After all, this approach worked for Apple, Nike, the Gap, Starbucks and the United States Marine Corps. It makes you wonder why other companies in other industries don’t do the same thing. Why, for example, aren’t there more growth-and-income mutual funds managed by people with tattoos and piercings and goatees and raspberry berets? If mutual fund families would stop being so stuffy about these things and start catering to a younger, hipper market, the public might stop draining so much cash from stock mutual funds the way they have the past few years. Who wouldn’t welcome a family of funds that catered to people under 30 and only invested in companies that made kewl, cutting-edge products? Funds with names like Fidelity Income & Irony, T. Rowe Price Contrarian Hipster and Dodge & Cox & Snarky?

And not just mutual funds. Why aren’t there food producers that make low-fat, high-fiber cereals for young people who want to flow with the glucose surge and demand the very latest gluten-free breakfast products? Why aren’t there airlines staffed exclusively by people with tattoos, bus companies that give discounts to any passenger with at least two piercings, accounting firms that will only accept clients sporting earrings and soul patches? Which gets back to Legere’s original point, that to be successful in today’s fiercely competitive world, a CEO has to think outside the box. In fact, he has to think unbox.

“I want this company to stop being a yogurt company and start thinking unyogurt,” says one dairy titan.

“We’re not a microbrewery,” says another. “We’re an unmicrobrewery.”

“You may have hated us when we were the New York Mets,” says a third, “but you’ll love us under our new rubric: the UnMets. You know, like in UnMets expectations?”

Thank you, Mr. Legere. Thank you.