T-Mobile's latest promotional stunt for its new 5G network is ... teaming up with Betty Crocker to give away free cake mix. It's proved surprisingly popular -- and it also amounts to a master class in clever marketing. T-Mobile used this very simple idea to both convey its own unique value proposition and take a swipe at industry leaders AT&T and Verizon.

A mobile carrier trying to sell its product by giving away cake mix may seem like an odd idea, but customers are, well, eating it up. The giveaway was announced early Tuesday; by 10 a.m., Twitter users reported getting a message that supplies were gone. The company teased that it might make more cake mix available over Twitter, but instead announced that it would give away $5,000 each to "five lucky fans." Then it asked its Twitter followers what they would do if they got the $5,000. A disturbingly large number said they'd pay off their credit card debt, but at least one asked for the cake mix instead.

Who would've thought free cake mix could be such a smart marketing move? Well, for one thing, lovers of mobile technology also seem to love sweets. Google proved this with its famously sugary names for Android releases, with names ranging alphabetically from Cupcake to Pie before the company finally gave up and started using numbers alone. But this time around, the appeal of the cake mix, and the cake you can bake from it, seems to be all about the color. The mix promises to bake into a cake that's the same intense shade of magenta that T-Mobile uses in its logo, stores, and pretty much everything else. For anyone who's ever admired the beauty of a red velvet cake with white frosting, the idea is probably irresistible. As far as I can tell, no one has posted an image of a baked T-Mobile cake yet, but I can't wait until they do.

It's a lot more clever than it sounds

All this is, of course, a bit of silliness, and a nod to all the home baking the pandemic has inspired. But it's also quite clever, because T-Mobile is using the layer-cake analogy to poke fun at its mega-rivals AT&T and Verizon. In its press release about the promotion, T-Mobile claims to be the only carrier building out 5G in three layers, ranging from a "base layer" that may be slower but covers a larger area to a top layer that is very fast but easily blocked by trees, walls, and other objects. It's a very clear analogy that Twitter users quickly picked up on, reporting on exactly which layers of the cake they had in their neighborhoods. 

All three layers, T-Mobile says, are needed to provide a good 5G experience. But, it claims, Verizon is only building out the mmWave spectrum, the fast but limited-to-a-short-distance top layer of the "cake." And, T-Mobile claims, both leading carriers are using dynamic spectrum sharing, which uses some 4G bandwidth for 5G devices, and which T-Mobile refers to as "stealing" bandwidth from other users. Perhaps ironically, if this is true, the biggest sufferers will be those with 4G-only devices. Apparently, T-Mobile is hoping to lure them away as well.

I can't speak to the question of bandwidth and user experience, but I can see how brilliant this little promotion is. T-Mobile came up with something cheap and easy to ship that a lot of people want, that will give them something fun to do at home during the pandemic, and that makes a subtle point about the superiority of its network at the same time. All it took was a bit of cake mix, and a whole lot of food coloring.