What is mLife? Ask AT&T Wireless

For the past two weeks, cryptic television spots, billboards and print ads have been touting something called mLife — but just what mLife actually is has been a closely-kept secret. Until now.

As it turns out, the multi-million dollar campaign, which debuted in a mysterious and vaguely philosophical spot during the Golden Globe Awards, is an elaborate rebranding effort conceived by AT&T Wireless Services.

Yet even before the link between mLife and AT&T Wireless has been unveiled in earnest, it’s uncertain whether the campaign will be allowed to continue.

On Friday, insurance and financial services giant MetLife filed a lawsuit against AT&T Wireless seeking that a federal court prohibit the company from using the term “mLife” and “mlife” in its advertising.

MetLife said in a statement that it disapproved of AT&T Wireless’ use of the term, which it found “confusingly similar” and potentially “dilutive” to MetLife’s own trademarks, “thereby causing irreparable harm to the company.”

The New York-based insurance company also said the mLife ads were similar to MetLife’s own “have you met life today?” campaign, which, it said, “also address issues such as enhancing life significance in an emotional way.” MetLife also objected to AT&T Wireless’ frequent use of “mLife” as spelled “mlife,” which it felt is similar to “have you met life today?”.

MetLife, which filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said that in addition to preliminary and permanent prohibition of AT&T Wireless from continuing the mLife campaign, it would also seek other, unspecified “appropriate” relief.

“We are taking this action on behalf of our customers and employees because we believe strongly in protecting the value of our good name and widely recognized brand,” said MetLife senior executive vice president Lisa Weber. “We have acted promptly and reasonably to resolve the critical issues raised. It is our hope this matter will be resolved swiftly and on the basis of fairness and best business practice.”

For their part, spokespeople for AT&T Wireless said the suit was “without merit,” and that because the two companies offer vastly different products and services, “there isn’t the remotest chance that AT&T Wireless’ use of ‘mLife’ could in any way confuse consumers or dilute MetLife’s brand … Last time we checked, everyone is still free to use the thirteenth letter of the alphabet.”

Since mid-January, the campaign’s TV, print and outdoor ads sought to drive visitors to www.mlife.com, which, like the offline creative, aimed to build buzz around the question of what just mLife is all about. Copy on the site reads: “Is mLife fattening? … I’m told that mLife can predict the weather … mLife gives me something to talk about with clients … What’s an mLife and how do I get one?”

In an effort to confound the curious, the site’s domain name, and the mLife service mark, were both registered to a mock corporate entity administered by Perkins Cole, a law firm in the employ of AT&T Wireless.

The site also features a contest to submit ideas about the meaning of mLife, with a $1000 prize to be given to a random entrant.

Officially, the tie between AT&T Wireless and mLife won’t be revealed until Sunday’s Super Bowl. During the game’s broadcast on Fox, a 60-second ad will draw a correlation between the freedom associated with wireless telephony and data services, and, procaciously, the freedom that comes via the severing of the umbilical cord.

“We are meant to lead a wireless life,” the voiceover will read. “Now we truly can. Welcome to mLife.”

As with the teaser ads, the Super Bowl spot was designed by AT&T Wireless’ agency of record, Ogilvy & Mather, a WPP Group company. According to spokespeople, the Super Bowl spot will — if Met Life doesn’t get its way — kick off a major brand advertising and marketing initiative that serves to illustrate the company’s new consumer vision.

Evidently, that vision entails less of a focus on the marketing mainstays of the mobile phone industry, like calling plans and special promotions. Instead, company executives said the campaign aims to describe the more human side of mobile technology.

“With this new brand campaign, we are making a bold break from our industry’s obsession with plans, prices, promotions, and patter about esoteric technology issues,” said AT&T Wireless chairman and chief executive John Zeglis. “Instead, we are reaffirming the real power of wireless communication … to keep human beings connected — to the people, information, and things that are important to them — while letting them be free of the limitations inherent in wired communication.”

Zeglis added that the early campaign’s intentional vagueness about mLife aimed to inspire curiosity about the term as well as to invite consumers to create their own meanings — a ploy that the company wagers will reinforce the idea of freedom being available via its services.

Zen-like product positioning and life-affirming creative might play well with advertising critics, but AT&T Wireless also is making certain to try to convert the campaign’s touchy-feely personality into real-world sales.

Following the Super Bowl spot, the mLife-AT&T Wireless connection is to be fleshed out in a series of TV, print, radio, and outdoor ads that depict ways in which the mobile products can be used, and why AT&T Wireless is “uniquely positioned” to meet consumers’ needs, Zeglis said.

Another 60-second TV spot, slated to air Feb. 4, is to draw more attention to the products behind the message — showing happy couples and suggesting, through a voiceover by actress Linda Hunt, that AT&T Wireless has services that help the couples both “stay connected and be free.”

Upcoming ads, some of which will be targeted at Hispanic/Latino and youth demographics, are also expected to focus on SMS, downloading and playing games, checking e-mail and other Internet features that are available on AT&T-enabled mobile phones.

“The mLife campaign will also reinforce what the vast majority of people do not yet know — that they can use wireless technologies other than voice to connect with people and information,” said Andre Dahan, president of the company’s mobile multimedia services unit.

In conjunction with the effort, AT&T Wireless also said it planned to redesign its consumer Web sites and retail stores.

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