While chasing millennials, Verizon and Comcast should wear a disguise

As my wife put two new Eveready Energizer batteries into an Xbox One controller the other day, I reminded her that those batteries were, up until a few years ago, manufactured by Union Carbide, for decades one of the most unpopular multi-national corporations on earth. 

She was ready to trash the fresh AAs -- and subsequently torpedo my plan to watch Narcos on Netflix -- before I assured her that Union Carbide has long since divested Eveready. Well before the infamous Bhopal tragedy, this was something publicly unpopular companies like Union Carbide, and the even larger multinational that acquired it, Dow Chemical, understood for years: You've got to use -- or in some cases, not use -- your brand strategically. 

I wonder if some of the same consumer dynamics hold true as Comcast and Verizon chase millennial-aged customers, who don't necessarily view these entrenched telecommunications behemoths as being fashionable technology choices.

This week, Verizon (NYSE: VZ) officially launched trials of its Go90 mobile video service, which, according to the wireless company, enables a whole host of millennial-like behaviors, such as letting users post comments, form interest-based groups and clip and share videos in social networks. 

Comcast  (NASDAQ: CMCSA), meanwhile, is testing a new YouTube-like, curated platform, Watchable, focused on short-form and user-made video.

Attacking the millennial problem on multiple fronts, Comcast just announced that its year-old Xfinity on Campus streaming service aimed at college students has grown to include 27 universities across the U.S.

Marcien Jenckes, executive VP of consumer services for Comcast Cable, dismissed the presence in the campus video market of Philo, a venture-backed start-up that is targeting the same students as Xfinity on Campus.

Speaking to media in a conference call, Jenckes said services like Philo "historically filled holes in the marketplace, when cable companies did not acknowledge changing behavior in students at universities."

All of Comcast's customer service meltdowns combined don't equal one Bhopal, but I wonder if Jenckes is seeing the campus market through the correct brand lens. In the race for young-consumer acceptance, is an unpopular, entrenched telecommunications monolith like Comcast really just going to overwhelm a well-backed Silicon Valley start-up with a catchy name simply because Comcast says it now understands the market? The battle seems far more uphill than that to me. 

Can services like Go90, Watchable and Xfinity on Campus really foster deep emotional connections with young, rebellious, tech-savvy consumers who view their corporate backers as "The Man"?

Credit Dish Network Chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen for seemingly understanding this dynamic as Dish targets millennials with $20-a-month streaming skinny bundle Sling TV. The industry and trade press understands clearly that the popular Sling service is owned by Dish (NASDAQ: DISH). But Dish seems careful not to tie any of its consumer marketing back to the parent company. 

Perhaps this distancing is something Comcast will learn, as it studies the business of online publishing companies Vox Media and Buzzfeed, two companies it recently plunged $200 million each into. 

Noting that the 50 websites operated by his Comcast division need to be more "cutting-edge," NBC Universal CEO and Comcast Senior Executive VP Steve Burke said at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch investment conference that working with Vox Media and Buzzed will make NBCU more savvy in the execution of its digital strategy. 

"We hope to help those companies grow, and help our 50 websites grow," Burke said. "But most importantly, we want to get smarter." --Daniel