As I tour around at events talking about why brands need to have a personality, a question that comes up often is about which brands don’t have a personality and suffer from facelessness. One of the most obvious categories that has built a dreadful reputation for itself is the wireless phone industry in the US. On the whole, people are distrustful, disloyal, and generally suspicious of just about anything these carriers do. The reasons are fairly obvious, from their cruel pricing structure designed to charge you for every kilobyte or nanosecond of use, to their requirement that you lock yourself into long contracts before they will give you service. In my own experience, my last month’s wireless bill was 18 pages long (and I don’t even have a teenager at home).

There have been a few pioneers that are trying a different model, such as Virgin Mobile with their prepaid solutions … but the world of the wireless carriers still promises much more flash than substance. For examples of this, just look at any recent advertising campaign by these carriers, from the fanfare behind launching the iPhone for AT&T or the wierd city name mashups used by T-Mobile to illustrate how their network would work in places where they vast majority of their customers will never travel. So while watching my DVR last week, when I saw a TV spot featuring the new CEO of Sprint talking in a more human voice about how they are simplifying their service, I stopped to pay attention. Here’s the ad:

This is not the approach we are used to in America from our cell phone providers. He comes off as genuine and the plan they are offering is as simple as you can imagine. Taking this human approach certainly sets them apart from their competitors. The reason why this is only half of their battle is because alongside this declaration by the CEO and new direction are two other telling videos.  The first is a clearly scripted YouTube video read by an uncomfortable employee talking about what Sprint is "really" like, and the other is from an irate customer who received a bill for $14,000 from Sprint and tried unsuccessfully to get it resolved:

Now in the second case, the customer did ultimately get her problem resolved thanks to it getting reposted on the Consumerist blog, but the damage for Sprint was already done. I love the simple plan they have come up with for customers and the authentic way the CEO is trying to tell the story. The problem is that consumers are likely to see it alongside other examples of exactly the opposite. It seems to be a case study in how advertising alone cannot reshape an industry or a brand. Without combining it with a smart strategy for social media and word of mouth, the best laid brand messages will likely fall on deaf or disbelieving ears.