The battle for mindspace – Africa’s mobile operators get serious about branding

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This week has seen the launch of the rebranding of Mauritius Telecom’s products under the Orange brand. Branding is ad-men speak for that curious alchemy of emotional and rational responses that we all feel for the products and services we buy. If the coverage and price of Africa’s mobile operators is more or less the same, how do potential users tell the difference between them? The answer is branding that captures mindspace: another whizzy piece of jargon that identifies how many people remember your brand and maybe identify with it. Russell Southwood looks at how branding can define both what you do and how you’re seen.

Africa is not a continent that is full of region-wide brands of any kind. There are some that are well known in sub-regions like East or West Africa but beyond the obvious small and short list of things like banks and airlines, the only ones that stand out are mobile companies. Otherwise everything is a mixture of the very international with imported aspirational white faces beaming down at you from the billboards or brands that only really available locally. The latter nearly always seem to lack polish and professionalism.

Although mobile operators dominate the ad spending Top 20s in those countries where data is available and consider themselves good at marketing, the truth is that they appear extremely successful because of the very high level of demand in most markets that has not really yet been fully met. Outside of the main mobile brands, a number of companies still run a confusing mixture of names locally.

The CEO of one leading (and highly profitable) mobile operator cheerfully confessed to me that he had no pricing strategy: he simply made it up as he went along. The next result in branding terms is not too difficult to see whichever country you are in. There are a bewildering array of tactical marketing offers for both post and pre-pay customers, all of which have different names and are separately branded.

The other noticeable thing is that many of the mobile companies and ISPs sell technology rather than use-vale. Whether it’s broadband or GPRS or 3G, they want you to sign up for the latest upgrade largely on the basis that it will be faster and better. As so many services (particularly the Internet) are so poor, this has seemed like a logical way to approach the problem. But as cheaper, better bandwidth becomes available to all operators and the market is more crowded, there needs to be a shift towards explaining what the product or service can do for you. For the vast majority of customers are not techno-savvy and really have no desire to become so.

What branding strives to create are brand values that are understood by the customer that influences how they feel about the product or service. For the customer, it’s the summary of all your experiences of dealing with a company and all the perceptions conveyed by others. Like the elephant, consumers do not forget. If you kept them waiting on the phone too long, they remember. If you failed to resolve a complaint satisfactorily, they remember. For the company doing the branding, it’s about understanding how you see yourself as a company and how customers see you and why.

It includes all the intangible elements like the feelings you might have about a piece of equipment like a phone. For example, there are no group of technology owners quite so in love with their kit as Apple owners. Of course, it’s only partly rational but the same thing is true for people and their favourite handset.

The first African mobile operators to get serious about branding were Celtel (yellow and red) and MTN (yellow and blue). Both poured a lot of resources into their operations becoming not just visible but instantly recognizable wherever you were on the continent.

Even some single country operations began to get the message. Zantel’s CEO Noel Herrity entertained GSM Africa 06 with his description of how they came up with an almost luminescent bright green as the brand colour.

This was not just vanity spending because more recognizable and understandable branding meant increased market share. In the case of Celtel, it was able to come from behind in some markets so the investment came out directly on the bottom line. Now part of the Zain group (what was Kuwait’s MTC) it is itself about to undergo a second rebranding as with new name Zain which in its Arab country roll-out uses various shades of purple.

However, one of the most interesting successes of 2007 was the rebranding of bits of Etisalat’s Telecel holdings into the new brand Moov. In Cote d’Ivoire, it seized an impressive market share from a standing start, startling the more established players. The logo is now being rolled out slowly across its other operations.

Finally, if Vodacom succumbs to the charms of Vodafone (and a large cheque), a large rebranding will address the confusing mixture of names and brands operated by the company that includes Vodacom, Vodafone and Safaricom.

But arguably the company that started all this was Orange and its founder Hans Snook. Orange was bought by France Telecom and it is rolling out the brand across its African operations. This week saw the second phase of a two-part rebranding operation in Mauritius.

Before the rebranding, Mauritius Telecom had no less than 43 individual brands within the company. The first stage of the rebranding was to re-establish a much clearer image for Mauritius Telecom itself. According to Johan Sels, Senior Executive Business Development, who is spearheading the process:”Mauritius Telecom had become a brand among many others. Whatever we did, Mauritius Telecom had lost its status as the ‘institution’ in telecoms in the country. We were spending lots of money of money to maintain 43 brands and had lost a sense of position.”

Mauritius Telecom and its mobile subsidiary Cellplus (which is the dominant market player) were suffering badly in the comparison with the contender Emtel. It has bright red branding and plentiful physical presence on the basis of this across the island. Mauritius Telecom needed more dynamic colours to convey certain qualities to key markets. As Sels observed:”We needed to be perceived as much more dynamic, particularly by the corporate sector and young people.”

The latest stage of the roll-out is to establish Orange as the brand name for products across the group so Cellplus has become Orange. The relationship between external appearances and what happens internally are important:”The company will be the same but the impression on the customer will be very different. But it’s easy to change the structure of the company if you keep a single brand.”

The scale of the change-over even in a small country like Mauritius is enormous. All the stationery, envelopes and fax headers throughout the company have to be changed. The polo shirts that the 1,850 employees wear have to be redone along with the hundreds of maintenance vehicles some of them drive. There are 200 plus billboards across the country that need to be changed and all of the signage at its different buildings. Things like stickers that had been stuck up in all the main towns had to be found and laboriously ripped down.

Sels was cagy about the level of investment but observed that:”It’s an investment for the next 10 years. We have a 60% market share in the mobile market but there are now three operators. Emtel is doing a damn good job. If we don’t change, we’ll stay at the same level. We have to change to respond to the dynamics of the market.”

Interestingly in the pre-rebranding market research, 25% of its customers did not realise that Cellplus were part of Mauritius Telecom.

Losing a much loved local brand is always painful and Orange has suffered criticisms for charging for its logo, particularly in Senegal. However, Sels is a stout defender of the logic of having (in this instance) a global brand:”Orange is international and has no historic links to the island. When asked what brands they related to, people named a range of international brands but only two local ones, Phoenix and Island Rum. People relate to international brands. Orange sponsors football that people on the island see on their TV. You couldn’t really do that with a local brand because you could not afford what it costs to pay the Premier League in sponsorship. That has a monetary value over time.”