Battle for the subscribers’ mind

Battle for the Subscribers’ Mind
By Raheem Akingbolu of Thisday
 
In a bid to grab substantial part of the telecommunication market, leading operators are not losing sleep on positioning and marketing strategies, reports Raheem Akingbolu
 
When the global system for mobile telecommunication (GSM), revolution swept through these climes in early 2001, many knew nothing fundamental would actually change. But enough would (and did) happen to change the way Nigerians related and communicated. And when the first players rolled out the first batch of lines, the first battle they fought, albeit acrimoniously, was for the soul of the consumer, or the subscriber. From any angle one chooses to look at the result of this, they succeeded, though relatively depending on who was spending what.
 
In 2001, in terms of market share, there was no operator that could say it was having any advantage over the other player. Both MTN and Econet (Now Zain) came in at the same time and had virtually a virgin land to till in terms of marketing drive. What then mattered was what each was offering in terms of services to sway a rather gullible subscriber and by extension, how deep the pocket for campaign funds was.
 
The first challenge is convincing prospective consumers that they need your services or products and the second one will be creating identity that will distinct your brand from the rest who are sure to come in when the stories become that of success. But it’s surely a different ball game when coming to a virgin land to battle for a slice of the consumer’s loyalty. The battle becomes a two-horse race between two brand managers. It becomes more interesting. And that was what happened between MTN and then Econet (Now Zain) when the GSM fever swept across the land in 2001.
 
The two players were granted licences in early 2001and by May of that year, Econet had rolled out its services and made the first ever GSM call in the country.
 
Promoted by Strive Misiyiwa, a Zimbabwean, the operating license was obtained, but there were hardly funds for expansion and dealing with the teething problems that would naturally come with such pioneering efforts. Then investors had to come in through some state governments like Akwa Ibom, Delta and Lagos and of course other investors. While this might not be the thrust of this report, it did play some role in ensuring that the Econet brand continually plays second fiddle to MTN.
 
While it came up with the the tag-line which informed the subscriber that it had been “inspired to change” his “world”, there was really no inspiration to see this through. On the surface, this is supposed to be the tag-line that should make heads turn simply because there was no way the world of the telephone (general) subscriber would not change as he was not used to simply buying a card, loading it into a calculator-looking gadget and off he went to link up with the whole world.
 
Therefore, if there was anything really responsible for this, it must be an inspiration from an outfit to change the way the nation was communicating.
 
Did this have any effect? Econet, boardroom unrest not withstanding, did position itself as the GSM service provider for the weaker sex and those with not so deep pocket.
 
 It started by introducing recharge credits of low call time value than its competitor, MTN. Therefore, it ensured that with little money, its subscribers could indeed be in touch with loved ones. While it did not roll out any particular package, it can be arguably suggested that more women are still on Econet (now Zain) network than men up till today. It is simply because of the initial swaying of the segment of subscribers to its side when it first rolled out. This was extended to students also but this was hampered by limited coverage area compared to its competitor.
 
As for MTN, its initial tag-line, which was not only offensive (at least from the point of view of competition), but inherently advantageous, was that it had “the best connection”. It was forced to change this but not until the perception had been firmly established in subscribers’ minds that it did indeed hold some edge over Econet. At times, perceptions like this might actually be what it is-perception, but that is all that mattered in positioning. Even when it changed to “the better connection”, it still held the advantage over a then faltering Econet.
 
MTN went to town, less than two years after it rolled out its services with the mouth-watering offer of getting one line free upon buying one. Appropriately dubbed BOGOF (buy one, get one free) promotion was an instant success.
 
According to the General Manager, Corporate Communications, MTN, Funmi Omogbenigun, the company strives on its core values of leadership, innovation, relationship, and ‘can do spirit’. In an online chat with THISDAY, she said “MTN has been able to build strong brand equity because we hold tight to our core values”
 
Econet’s seemingly hopeless situation was not helped by boardroom brawls and a growing notoriety for name changes. From Econet to Vodacom and later V-Mobile before adopting Celtel and recently Zain, billions had been changed trying to ‘dememorise’ the consumer in terms of ‘forcing’ him to forget the last name and getting used to a new one.
In an interview with THISDAY, on Thursday, Zain’s Communication Manager, Mr. Emeka Opara, argued that there hasn’t been anytime the company changed name for change shake but for positive development.
 
“Each time we change, we come out better because there was always a need to change. We wanted to be the operator that has the capacity to perform. Having stated this, what happened in the case of Celtel to Zain, is not a change of ownership but a corporate decision on the part of MTC group, that acquired Celtel. MTC wanted to play on a global stage and compete with global leaders with unique brand name that would appeal to a global audience, hence the change to Zain”
Meanwhile, as MTN was rolling out services everywhere like a wild fire buoyed by a rampaging harmattan wind, it felt that annotating itself as being a better connection did not tell enough the story of the edge it had over competitors: expansion. Hence, the new tag-line: everywhere you go.
 
Zain (then V-Mobile) made some attempt to respond to the rampaging marketing drive of MTN through the community roll out campaign. This was a situation whereby people would vote for communities they wanted to be connected through short message service, SMS, and the community with the highest number of votes would be connected. By all standards, and in fairness, to V-Mobile, it was a successful campaign. But before this, there was the small matter of the entry of Globacom into the market. Before it rolled out in early 2003, a top media manager was quoted to have said that per second billings was not realistic five years after that time.
 
 (By his estimation, the earliest per second billing would have come would have been 2008. But Glo had other plans. Obviously aware that it had to do something different to get a niche in the market, it started the per-second billing campaign that had half-eaten banana as its symbol. The import of the campaign was that though, banana is not something you eat half way, but with Glo, you could. And it worked like magic. People started buying Glo lines, even if they still kept their existing MTN and Econet (that was the name as at when Glo hit town) lines. And pronto, MTN and Econet started per second billing. The MTN man who projected 60 months away was made to eat the humble pie forced down his throat by Glo. 
 
 
Then came Etisalat. Coming to a crowded market could be daunting on its own, but not for the handlers of the new brand.
Despite the build-up that heralded its launch last year, not a few observers thought it would not have an easy sail in the market. The reason is simple; there were already three GSM operators – MTN, Zain and Glo, struggling with one another, with firm grip on all the segments of the market. MTN was believed to have successfully captured the youth and business market while Zain and Glo were competing in the grassroots’ market.
 
 But with a rare determination, the new entrant forged ahead and launched in seven cities. At the launch in October last year, the management ruled out the possibility of chickening out in the market soon.
 
“We are in the market to give Nigerians the best GSM service with the firm determination to continue adding value from time to time” the company had said. Specifically, its Director, Brand & Communication, Mr. Yinka Akande, told this reporter in an interview before the rolling out that the insinuation that the market was saturated was not correct.
 
He said:“Nigeria’s population can still conveniently accommodate new operators.” On the magic the company would use, Akande simply said “no magic, except that the new entrant had discovered what the existing operators were yet to discover. We have come to liberate Nigerian consumers and make them have value for their money in an exciting way”. Speaking further, he pointed out that Etisalat’s decades of existence and its experience in other African and Middle East countries would make the penetration of Nigerian market easy.”
 
Aside products, one major thing that helped the brand to explore the market were its communication materials, which were handled by 141 Worldwide, an Ikeja, Lagos based agency that clinched its advertising account last year. Its Teaser paraded a beautiful lady with a sealed lip, after some days it opened half way and later opened up fully on the day of the launch. The import of this was to tell those who cared to listen that something big were about to happen
 Today, if anyone is still doubting if they are succeeding, then such a person may need do a random sampling of 0809 numbers in the country to know if Etisalat means business or not.
 
Based on what is obtainable in the market today, the four operators have made different positive statements in their respective drive to become market leader. As the hands of the clock tilt towards 2010, it is too early to predict the next card to play.
 
Source: Thisday Newspaper

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