What's working (and what's not) in telco advertising

Dan White, marketing expert & illustrator

Telco advertising fascinates me. It spans a wide range of communication strategies and creative styles. Telco ads convey functional benefits — price, speed, reliability etc. — as well as emotional benefits like human connection, safety and freedom. They communicate these benefits either using sales techniques (e.g. competitive comparisons, time-limited deals) or by telling stories. Some ads aim to combine the two. 

But which approaches work best? What is the secret of effective telco advertising? 

To answer these questions, I teamed up with market research platform Zappi. They used their Amplify ad system to get consumer feedback on 107 telco video ads from the US and UK that aired in 2022 or 2023. A full list of brands whose ads were in the research can be found in the appendix.

Zappi’s approach includes a set of seven metrics that have been validated against in-market sales effects.

For simplicity, the findings below focus on the three metrics that contribute most to the model: Purchase Uplift, Unaided Brand Recall and Overall Emotion.

Read on to view our conclusions around:

  • How telco advertising stacks up against other categories

  • Where telco ads tend to perform well and where they fall short

  • Which brands are making the most of their advertising investment

  • The ingredients of an effective telco ad

  • Why strong/weak ads perform the way they do and how they could be made more effective

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Overall conclusions

Telco advertising performs less well, overall, than other categories. 

The variation in effectiveness between brands, however, is startling. Brands with the strongest advertising are likely to gain competitive advantage from their media investment. Brands with weaker advertising are at risk of falling behind. 

All brands have an opportunity to sustain or raise the bar for their advertising by applying lessons learned from the best and worst ads in the category. This learning is outlined below.


Telco ads perform less well than other categories overall. While Purchase Uplift scores are good, the ads fall short on the two other KPIs (Unaided Brand Recall and Overall Emotion). Unfortunately, a weak performance in any of the three areas is enough to undermine ad effectiveness. 

This is a wake-up call for brand owners in the sector since much of advertising currently being used is sub-par. There is a big opportunity for any telco brand that outperforms its competitors.

Purchase Uplift

On the whole, telco ads do a good job at delivering relevant product information (when they intend to do so) and generating good levels of purchase uplift. Ads that succeed in communicating good price, high speed or superior reliability tend to be seen as relevant and motivating to consumers.

These ads do a particularly good job at conveying relevant product information:

  • Lyca Mobile ‘Sale’ (UK): This ad must be one of the coolest promotional ads ever. It delivers its price message using impactful visuals and synchronized music to ensure the ad stands out and holds people’s attention.

  • Hyperoptic ‘Say Goodbye to mid-contract price hikes’ (UK):  This ad outperforms all other UK ads we tested in terms of relevance and purchase uplift. The promise to never apply mid-contract price increases clearly resonates strongly with UK consumers.

  • WOW! ‘Chaos Internet’ (US): This ad conveys the benefits of having affordable, reliable internet in a simple, humorous way that parents can identify with.

Many telco ads, however, are less effective at delivering relevant product information. The ads below all attempted to convey a product benefit but either failed to do so or the message itself wasn’t relevant to consumers.

  • Three ‘Aww’ (UK): This was among the worst performing ads we tested as it scored poorly in all areas. Notice how in almost every scene, the woman ignores the people around her because she is distracted by her mobile, even when they are in discomfort. Nobody wants to be that person.

  • Virgin Media ‘Skategirl’ (UK): The message in this ad — fastest broadband speed — is delivered only via the text and voiceover at the end. Consumers like the story but do not connect it with the message, so the message is simply not registered.

  • AT&T trade-in ads (US) (in this example and this one): These ads communicate that with AT&T you can trade in your old phone — but an analysis of the open-ended diagnostic questions revealed that viewers found the message too vague to be of much interest. 

  • BT ‘Beat Dance Academy’ (UK): The dancing in this ad draws attention, but viewers struggle to understand why it might be relevant to them.

Unaided Brand Recall

Many telco ads struggle to get people to remember the brand being advertised. On average, Unaided Brand Recall was 62% in the US compared to Zappi’s cross-category norm of 67%. In the UK, the level was 64% compared to 73%. Yet the variation in scores across brands is enormous. 85% of people in the UK remember Vodafone after seeing this ad featuring Eurovision Song Contest hero Sam Ryder among a selection of other ads. By contrast, only 31% of people remember Virgin having seen this ad featuring a hang-gliding goat.

In the US, ads for Mint Mobile featuring the actor Ryan Reynolds all perform well on brand recall with scores ranging between 68% and 76%.

Branding strength is closely related to whether the ads feature an established Distinctive Brand Asset (DBA). All Vodafone ads in the UK feature the brand’s red color prominently. The connection between the color and the brand has been established over more than 15 years via activity across all consumer touch points. Vodafone owns this color asset. Brand recall is much lower for Virgin Media because it uses red but doesn’t own this color. The Mint Mobile ads all feature Ryan talking to camera and use the same distinctive green background.

All brands should plan to build a set of DBAs. The commercial benefits are enormous. DBAs not only help to trigger brand memories that influence choice at the point of sale, but make it easier for future advertising to stick to the brand in people’s minds. From our dataset, the average Creative Effectiveness Score for ads featuring well established DBAs is 62 compared to just 45 for other ads. To learn more about the value of DBAs, check out Building Distinctive Brand Assets by Jenni Romaniuk.

DBAs can take several years to become established. New brands should identify visual and audio elements with the potential to become DBAs and feature these consistently, across as many channels as possible, from launch onward. In the early days, these elements will not be enough to connect the advertising strongly with the brand in people’s minds. Young brands therefore also need to make sure the brand name is prominent in the ad and is an integral part of the action. 

As an example, this ad from little-known UK brand Hyperoptic features a clever way to help viewers register the brand name. One of the characters in the ad gets the brand name wrong (the dad, of course) and the rest of the family corrects him. This ad achieved average levels of brand recall — which is a good result for such an unfamiliar new brand.

By contrast, these ads from other little known brands suffer from low brand recall. Without established DBAs, and without the brand name featuring within a memorable part of the ad, consumers have little chance of registering the brand.

Revealing the brand at the end simply doesn’t work. The only brands that might get away with it are the ones that have spent years establishing strong DBAs and a highly distinctive advertising style or format — like Dove, Apple, M&Ms and Red Bull.

Overall Emotion

Telco ads also struggle to generate high levels of involvement. Apart from those using DBAs, few of the ads tested are likely to build strong memories that maintain the brand’s salience in the long term. 

In the UK, the ads rarely generate a strong emotional response (Overall Emotion score of 35% compared to 42% for other categories). These scores suggest that the ads aren’t effective at storytelling – the secret to eliciting emotions and ensuring memorability. 

In the US, the situation is worse. US telco ads, on average, lack enjoyment (scoring 3.6 vs 3.9 out of 5 in enjoyment) and are much weaker than other categories at generating positive emotions (Overall Emotion score of 43% vs 55%). 

Many telco ads aim to capture attention by creating a feeling of apprehension, discomfort, tension or fear. This can be effective, but only if the tension is fully resolved within the ad and viewers are left feeling relieved and optimistic. In the most effective storylines, the brand is the catalyst for restoring peace and calm. This is not the case in many telco ads, as you can see in some of these examples:

  • BT Broadband ‘Ghost Town’ (UK): The creepy nightmare vibe of this ad is a turn off for many viewers. The transition to a more positive atmosphere towards the end isn’t enough to turn things around. Continuing to use the melancholy ‘Ghost Town’ music track after the transition doesn’t help.

  • Zen internet ‘Time to move on’ (UK):  The script is clever but the depressing tone of this ad, even when the character is talking about his new positive relationship, means that viewers are left feeling low.

  • Cox Internet ‘Why?’ (US): Again, the down-beat start to the ad (including a dig at the mom by the dad – uncool) isn’t resolved in the dull final 5 seconds.

  • DirectTV ‘Weird Neighbor’ (US): This is another ad that makes people feel uneasy. It has almost nothing at the end to overcome the creepiness.

These ads generate negative feelings which makes them less likely to be remembered. This story structure, known as ‘problem-solution,’ has been used in advertising for centuries. But it only works if the feelings generated by the ‘solution’ successfully override the negative feelings caused by exposure to the ‘problem.’ The examples above fail to do this. They do not achieve a sufficiently powerful transition to leave people feeling good.

By contrast, this Vodafone ad (UK) introducing their Pro II Broadband gets the balance about right. While not the most emotive of ads, it takes problem/solution and manages to deliver relevant, new information in a clear way that leaves people feeling quite positive. 

Vodafone has also produced ads that are effective because of their emotional power rather than their product message. Their UK ads featuring tennis stars Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewett (which you can see in this example and this one) do include a product message – reliability – but only as an excuse to tell two inspiring stories. The Zappi results show that ads like these, focusing squarely on building brand memorability, can drive brand performance more effectively in the long run than boring ads about product features that are quickly forgotten.

Pulling on people’s heartstrings is one way to generate engagement and memorability. In telco advertising, humor is more commonly used. This Xfinity (US) ad uses humor to hold people’s attention and deliver its message about strong reception. Similarly, the humor is directly connected to the message about switching your phone whenever you want in this O2 ad in the UK.

Best all-round performers

The best telco ads succeed in delivering relevant product messages in an emotionally compelling, humorous and memorable way. These ads are able to trigger an immediate sales response and help build lasting brand memories that influence sales in the long term. These are gold dust for brand owners and should be aired heavily and used to inspire future ads.

These are some of the current best all-rounders of the ads that we researched:

  • Vodafone Gordon Reid and Alfie Hewett ads (UK) (in this example and this one): As we covered in the previous section, these ads pack an emotional punch while still cueing the brand well and delivering a clear message.

  • Mint Mobile ads (US): All of the ads in this series talk about Mint’s low price while telling a simple, amusing story. Ryan Reynolds has become an important brand asset for Mint. It will be interesting to see if they will be able to continue using him now that he has sold his stake in the company.

  • T-mobile ‘Grease’ (US): This homage to ‘Summer Loving’ from the musical Grease (featuring John Travolta and the boys from Scrubs) communicates fast set-up, high connection speeds and low price. It’s also catchy, memorable and brings a smile to your face.

  • Verizon ‘Sadie’s myPlan’ (US): This ad tells a simple story of someone moving house that showcases the benefits of mobile internet.

  • WOW! ‘Besties’ (US): A fun story about the entertainment that can be had with a good internet connection (featuring a dog with human hands wearing a branded sweater).


Telco advertising in the US and UK is a mixed bag. 

It generally does a good job at communicating product features and generating immediate purchase interest. It is less effective, however, at engaging consumers in order to build brand memories that influence purchasing in the long term. 

Branding is often the issue. Brands that have established a set of distinctive brand assets enjoy strong brand linkage, but other brands struggle in this area. Plus, telco ads rarely tell an emotionally engaging story that sticks in people’s memory.

The weakest ads we tested are unlikely to impact sales in the short or long term. The strongest ads, on the other hand, do both. 

If you are a telco brand owner, you may need to up your game to remain competitive or stay ahead in the advertising arms race. The good news is you know who to call.

If you would like to see the results in detail or discuss how the learnings could be applied to improve the effectiveness of your advertising – within telco or other sectors – reach out to Zappi. You can also contact me directly at: dan.j.white@me.com.

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About the author

Dan White is a marketing expert and illustrator with 33 years’ experience in brands, advertising, and market research. He has worked with many of the world’s biggest brands and advised on over 500 advertising campaigns. His summaries and illustrations have influenced hundreds of thousands of marketing and insights professionals through his social media activities and three best-selling books. In this piece he draws on his experience of the challenges faced by market research of the past in delivering what insights teams and marketers need. And he looks at how much more impact the industry could have today if it embraces recent advances in technology.


UK Brands included in the research:





iD Mobile






Talk Talk

Tesco Mobile


Virgin Media



Zen Internet

US Brands included in the research:




Boost Mobile

Consumer Cellular

Cox Internet





Mint Mobile

Red Pocket Mobile


Straight Talk



US Cellular