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Monday, October 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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T-Mobile bidding adieu to Zeta-Jones

Seattle Times technology reporter

T-Mobile USA will no longer use Catherine Zeta-Jones as its celebrity spokeswoman, and instead it is launching an ad campaign based on everyday people, the Bellevue company plans to announce today.

As part of the switch, T-Mobile said it will introduce a new service centered on the people theme. Subscribers will be able to make and receive unlimited calls from their five favorite people.

The announcement marks an end to the celebrity aura the company has relied on over the years with Zeta-Jones most recently and actress Jamie Lee Curtis before that.

During this period, T-Mobile has played up the theme by hosting magenta-carpet events that drew A-list crowds in New York and Los Angeles. At a recent Seattle party, Blink 182's Travis Barker played drums alongside DJ AM.

Now T-Mobile is changing its tune to match the rise in popularity of online communities and content created by regular people — not paid actors.

Four years ago, T-Mobile signed a two-year contract with Zeta-Jones and extended it until the beginning of 2007. Advertising involving the actress, who starred in the movies "Traffic" and "The Mask of Zorro," will be phased out.

"We could never have imagined the cachet and appeal she would have brought to T-Mobile," said T-Mobile spokesman Peter Dobrow. "Her style, credibility and integrity have been a tremendous benefit for our company and our brand."

Tole Hart, an analyst with Gartner, said he wasn't sure why T-Mobile was changing its marketing approach since the celebrity campaigns have been successful.

"It's a shift in terms of the marketing message," he said. "You only hear so much about them [T-Mobile]. I thought celebrities gave them some notoriety. We'll see what happens; I liked their existing strategy."

T-Mobile, the fourth-largest carrier in the U.S. by subscribers, will also change its tagline from "Get More" to "Stick Together." The company said in a release that the tagline "was created to underscore the importance of maintaining and enhancing personal relationships."

The makeover comes in the midst of industry changes. The mergers of Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless and Sprint and Nextel created huge carriers. T-Mobile USA, owned by the German giant Deutsche Telekom, has been forced to grow organically, adding 13 million subscribers in the past four years for a total 23 million.

It also has had difficulty keeping pace with technology advances. All of the other nationwide carriers have started to roll out high-speed cellular networks. T-Mobile expects to start soon after it purchased rights to the required airwaves in a recent federal auction.

In the meantime, to emphasize the change from A-list to Average Joe, T-Mobile is launching the "myFaves" service, which allows users to designate five U.S. phone numbers, whether they are landlines or other numbers from other wireless carriers, as their favorite people to call. Inbound and outbound calls to and from those numbers are unlimited.

MyFaves is the most recent service in an industry known for spawning new vernacular. Today, people understand terms such as "overages" or "free in-network calling." This service is generically called "unlimited any-network calling."

It allows users to embed photos or icons of people at those numbers on their cellphone screen. With one click, the user can call or message that individual. The faves can be changed monthly.

The service builds on social networking and is similar to MySpace.com, in which users can highlight their top eight friends on their homepage.

In April, Alltel, the fifth-largest carrier, announced "My Circle," an offering that allows users to get free calling with 10 numbers.

Alltel's Web site pokes fun at T-Mobile's service: "Why call 10 numbers for free, when you can call five?"

T-Mobile maintains that providing 10 numbers is unnecessary. It said research found 65 percent of a person's calls are made to the same five people.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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