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AT&T CEO John Stankey says he's not satisfied with his own company's brand

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John Stankey, CEO of WarnerMedia poses as he arrives at the WarnerMedia Upfront event in New York, May 15, 2019.

Mike Segar | Reuters

AT&T CEO John Stankey said Tuesday he's unhappy with his company's brand and plans to refresh the wireless carrier's image in the coming years.

"Frankly, I'm not satisfied with where the AT&T brand stands right now," Stankey said during the virtual Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference. "I'm not sure the brand is positioned well for the next 10 years."

Various iterations of AT&T brands have been around since the late 1800s, just years after the invention of the telephone. The company's stodgy reputation as a landline telephone provider and reliable dividend payer to investors still exists, even as AT&T has morphed into a wireless carrier and owner of media assets, including WarnerMedia and DirecTV.

Stankey is in the process of merging WarnerMedia with Discovery. He has also separated DirecTV into a standalone company as he attempts to focus on AT&T's wireless business, which fell behind Verizon and T-Mobile in terms of number of subscribers after T-Mobile and Sprint merged last year.

AT&T spent more than $160 billion, including debt, to acquire WarnerMedia and DirecTV. Neither deal paid off for Stankey, who was instrumental in acquiring both companies as former CEO Randall Stephenson's top lieutenant. AT&T shares have fallen about 25% in the last five years.

The company's focus for the coming years will be building out 5G broadband service. Stankey said his vision to refresh the brand will go beyond advertising, though he didn't reveal specific details for how he intends to jumpstart the company's image.

"It's a highly recognized brand, but we've got to take it to a new place," Stankey said.

AT&T has had several branding failures in recent years. The company chose to debut HBO Max while two other streaming services called HBO Go and HBO Now still existed. The result confused customers and drew after-the-fact criticism from WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar, who admitted the sequence of events was a mistake in an interview with CNBC.

AT&T also changed the name of its DirecTV Now streaming service to AT&T TV Now — a separate product from AT&T TV — in 2019, only to eventually kill off AT&T TV Now and rename the entire suite of services DirecTV. Several former and current AT&T and DirecTV executives told CNBC they were critical of AT&T's management of DirecTV, which for years outpaced rival satellite TV provider Dish Network in customers on the strength of its brand and witty TV commercials.

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