Image source: T-Mobile.

When T-Mobile US (NASDAQ:TMUS) runs a new Un-carrier promotion, the latest move tends to turn heads around the industry. Somehow, I doubt that AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) will follow suit with CEO John Legere's latest idea, though.

Un-carrier 11 consists of two unrelated components:

  • Under the "Stock-Up" moniker, T-Mobile customers will be awarded shares of company stock in return for moving over from rival carriers, and also for referring new clients to Big Magenta's service. Oh, and current users will get one share per active T-Mobile line, too.
  • The "T-Mobile Tuesdays" app gives customers free stuff from other companies, managed via in-app coupons delivered every Tuesday.

Both of these programs look like solid boosters for T-Mobile's customer growth and long-term retention. I still don't think other American wireless operators will copy either one of these ideas anytime soon, unlike several of T-Mobile's earlier Un-carrier policies.

Let me walk you through the two new programs and explain why they should work for T-Mobile but not for Verizon or AT&T.


Under the Stock-Up program, T-Mobile is handing out stock certificates to current and future customers, with extra helpings available if you're willing to promote T-Mobile's services to your friends. Every voice line that's active as of June 6, 2016, gets one share. Every new voice line opened between June 7 and the end of the year also qualifies for a free T-Mobile share.

And referrals resulting in at least one paid voice account will add another share to the referrer's account, up to a maximum of 100 shares. Each referral counts double if the referring customer has had a T-Mobile account for at least five years.

It's very clever to make shareholders out of your own customers. It's doubly shrewd to give extra stock candy to loyal clients and active promoters. Stock ownership creates a brand new emotional connection between the customer and the service, making it just a little bit harder to leave T-Mobile and go elsewhere.

At current share prices, and assuming that you're not going crazy with promoting T-Mobile to 99 friends, the promotion amounts to roughly a $43 discount. That's not a monthly break but a one-time payout, and you'll really only see it in your bank account if you (a) claim the shares due to you and (b) sell the shares at some point.

Image source: T-Mobile.

T-Mobile could have simply issued a one-time $43 rebate to its 26.8 million branded postpaid phone customers, at a cost of more than $1.1 billion. Instead, it set up a share-based deal where the stock is to be bought in open-market transactions. Printing new stubs for existing accounts would have diluted T-Mobile's stock by more than 3%, and then the company would have had to handle the referrals and incoming account transfers with more dilution. This cash-based approach avoids that mess.

The company will thus end up paying cash for these shares via share-based promotions manager LOYAL3. Details of the deal between T-Mobile and LOYAL3 are not known, but investors should see signs of this money flow on T-Mobile's next financial statements. The costs could be reported as a promotion-related cost under the income statement's operating expanses, or maybe as share repurchases on the cash flow statement. The income statement approach is probably best, since it also reduces T-Mobile's taxable income for the second quarter.

I'm also assuming that the LOYAL3 contract includes plenty of ways to back out of the share handouts. There are time limits on the initial share issues, and many customers will simply never bother to go through the claim process. Unused coupons don't cost much for the issuer.

That's all good for T-Mobile, who gets a nifty loyalty booster at a limited cost. But I don't see the bigger operators taking T-Mobile's lead here.

Sure, both Verizon and AT&T trade at share prices roughly comparable to T-Mobile's. But with T-Mobile, you get an exciting growth stock where share performance is all the promotional fuel you need: The stock has gained a market-stomping 62% since the start of 2015, for example. Over the same period, AT&T's gains stopped at 16% and Verizon barely climbed over the 6% mark.

Moreover, this is not the kind of thing you expect an established market giant to do. The big boys may have followed T-Mobile's lead to get rid of two-year service contracts and offer data rollover features, but handing out stock shares is one bridge too far.

T-Mobile Tuesdays

This is the app T-Mobile customers need to use to grab the shares they're due. That's the first promotion in a series of weekly campaigns, starting with a free pizza, movie rental, and milkshake from three separate vendors not named T-Mobile.

This is a much simpler effort, amounting to a basic coupon flow. Many customers will never make use of these offers, or even install the required smartphone app. That's fine, since it limits T-Mobile's promotion costs.

Those who do get addicted to free pizza and movie tickets on a weekly basis, well, they just got another reason to hang on to their T-Mobile accounts. That personality is also likely to hang out with other like-minded deal hunters, so the word of mouth marketing comes easy.

This one might -- just might -- show up under the Verizon or AT&T names, but I'd be shocked. This is not T-Mobile trying to change the mobile industry, but a fairly traditional marketing push. Executives at the bigger networks have surely already considered this approach or even run small market tests. But as the established market leaders, they aren't desperate for additional consumer attention. T-Mobile is, and this gets the job done.

What's next?

So Un-carrier 11 isn't setting new standards for the industry to follow, but T-Mobile customers should enjoy the rewards. Me, I'll get my T-Mobile shares tomorrow and transfer them to my regular brokerage account, and then I'll consider the free pizza on offer. After that, I might uninstall or just forget the T-Mobile Tuesdays app.

That's anecdotal data, and most T-Mobile customers probably won't follow my path. Either way, the new stuff should boost customer growth and limit T-Mobile's churn by a small amount, and I can't wait to see where the accountants end up hiding the program's costs.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.