MTN battles to retain market share and lessons for brands

MTN-logo-900x450From Cape Town to Johannesburg down to Lagos and then to Abuja, the story reads the same; Africa’s leading telecoms operator, MTN Group is losing quite a large number of end users to Vodafone, Etisalat, Glo and surprisingly, Airtel.

So, my first question is – why is MTN losing subscribers so rapidly to competitors in markets it has dominated for over a decade?

Has this ‘porting’ been due to its poor network quality and below-average customer service satisfaction across Africa’s major economies, or perhaps, MTN’s long gamble on its epileptic network quality and bad service satisfaction has started backfiring?

Again, I thought of what boxing legend, Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth”. Perhaps, it seems MTN’s marketing strategy has finally boomeranged on Africa’s leading telecoms company due to a number of pre-existing factors. These will, of course, include number portability swap, rising consumer power, ultra competitors, new entrants in the data marketing services, uncompetitive tariff plans and price parity wars, but to mention a few.

Secondly, is the MTN brand beginning to lose its emotional appeal and customer relevancy while the company’s management executives and marketing communication firms are befuddled about this seemingly complex trend and wondering what’s going to happen next? Or to put it simply, MTN’s network service is no longer enough to attract and retain customers no matter the huge budgets committed to marketing and advertising it?

Better still; I think the MTN brand has lost its social currency worth in Nigeria and South Africa (its leading markets) in recent months due to all of the factors cited above and more. So, I decided to take a look at the twists and turns of events in recent months.

airtel-new-logo-horiEarlier this year, BrandZ by Milward Brown, impressively ranked MTN among the Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands in 2015. However, in recent months, MTN South Africa lost about half a million subscribers in its home county and another five million subscribers in Nigeria, its largest market, due to the country’s regulatory body NCC insisting that unregistered subscribers be taken off the network. This meant that over five million customers were not ready to renew their relationship with MTN due to its poor quality of service and network, and opted instead for other networks.

So, I concluded that indeed, despite huge advertising budgets, major visibility across multiple platforms, and hiring of the biggest ad agencies does not automatically translate to guaranteeing market share, consumer love, affinity and ROI without quality of service to end-users.

Today’s digital transformation has given consumers the power to interrogate a brand by connecting with each other across social platforms. Recent research shows that about 51% customers say they will become more loyal to telecoms companies when they have good service experiences. Can this be said of MTN?

A company that has the largest market share in an industry that is ultra competitive, is expected to not only retain its existing customers by building brand loyalty, but also, to continually attract new customers who may be unfamiliar with its products or services, or looking to switch networks.

GLOInstead, after a decade of reaching stratospheric heights in the Nigerian market, the MTN brand is falling from one new depth to another into what appears to be a bottomless pit.

Since market share stealing is a known quantity to brand marketers, it is disingenuous to pretend that there is something new to say about what must be done.

The key thing now is for MTN to wake up to the fact that in the face of something utterly out of the ordinary, the best response is to do something completely commonplace.

First and foremost, MTN needs to upgrade its epileptic network service to a position of superiority that is far and above its competitors, then redefine its brand essence and attend to the prevailing trust issues if it wants to even stand a chance of gaining mindshare consideration from consumers.

Secondly, MTN needs to hire disruptive creative and digital agencies that are very conversant with pop culture trends, consumer culture and have a thorough understanding of the complexities girding the emergence of a new breed of digital consumers.

Thirdly, MTN must swallow its huge pride and arrogance; and apologize to Nigerians for taking them for granted all these years. This would be very handy after the first two points mentioned above have been implemented.

Perhaps this strategy direction could create a sense of bonding with the consumer communities that would help to redefine MTN’s brand posture, and get consumers talking about the brand in a more positive light.

Indeed, MTN has risen to their current status after a lot of painstaking effort. Like we all know, it takes years to erect a successful brand identity, but only an instant to destroy it.

Today, I seek to uncover some of the most common lessons why MTN is experiencing such a negative run on the brand outlook, particularly in Africa’s biggest economy, and perhaps, lessons for other brands and brand managers to learn from.

MTN Lessons for other brands

1. Concentrate on the brand’s perception
According to Jack Trout, author of Differentiate or Die, “marketing is a battle of perceptions, not products”. MTN clearly have lost its perception to the dust.

2. Feel the love
In the words of Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide, successful brands don’t have ‘trademarks’; they have ‘love-marks’ instead. Indeed, MTN initially created a strong bond between its brand and the consumer and strongly built brand loyalty, but painfully lost all of these to tariff wars, poor services and corporate superciliousness.

3. Do the right market research
Despite millions of complaints and negative word of mouth across the country, MTN has failed to conduct an immersive research audit into the public perception of its brand image.

Perhaps, MTN spent time and money carrying out the wrong kind of market research or never told itself the truth by acting on any. As it turned out, the market it spent millions trying to reach didn’t even exist.

4. Don’t fuel your competitor’s strength
MTN number portability ad promotion, “Saka, I Don Port O”, was a classic ad, but a case of a good communication, bad product plus bad network service equals bad experience.

etisalat logoIronically, advertising did work here but against the brand; the campaign was memorable and made consumers to rethink the possibility of porting and further exposed the terrible network service of the MTN brand.

The campaign was originally designed against its competitors but turned out to eventually help to boost the emergence of the Etisalat brand as most users ported/switched to the EMTS network.

5. Important of Pricing
Services can either be too expensive or too cheap. When some brands price themselves too low, they lose their prestige. However, with MTN, consumers could not justify the high price and bad network service in their minds across the country.

6. Be humble and respectful
Part of MTN’s brand identity is its arrogance, haughtiness, and perceived foreign duplicity. This kind of attitude was already destined to misfire. Nigerians love to be identified with a brand that confers pride, aspiration, genuine attributes and global consciousness.

7. Avoid customer confusion
MTN is not cognitive; it is reflexive, MTN treasures not having to think about it. It just “does its thing”.’ By extending its brand far and wide into too many product ranges, MTN was creating confusion about what the brand actually stood for.

It seemed to be doing everything – different product extensions, various much sponsorships, and too many brand ambassadors – which caused one to rethink the kind of message the brand was focused on getting out there to consumers.

It seems consumers suddenly realized they should not be paying as much as they did for a poor epileptic network service that has persisted for years.

8. Accept that no brand is an island
Indeed MTN has accepted the fact that their competitors are far better than they are at the present time.

To portrait my point, speaking against the backdrop of MTN’s loss of end users to Etisalat, Mr. Sifiso Dabengwa, MTN Group CEO; admitted again to Etisalat’s network superiority and commended the network for its data-offering product – EasyBlaze.

9. Mix NOT your messages
On the one hand, MTN is supposed to be with you “anywhere you go” but on the other hand, MTN is like your best buddy that leaves you at a point of emergency. Consumers always had cause for complaints and customer care issues are almost always left hanging.

10. Don’t outsource without supervision

glo-etisalat-airtel-mtn-logo 2

MTN failed woefully on customer service both online and offline. All MTN outlets are totally relentless, filled with uncertainty and poor customer experience. The brand lost its core business fundamentals in brand essence and trust.

Again, in my quest to get a deeper understanding of why the sudden run on the MTN network by consumers to other networks in recent months, I conducted a dip-stick research study to test the potency and public perception of the MTN brand, vis-à-vis its closest competitors – Glo, Etislat and Airtel.

So, I developed some questions to elicit answers that threw up the MTN’s name, alongside major players in the telecoms industry, and they are summarized as follows:

Test of MTN Attributes
The test of attributes used here is based on experiential impact built on usage, recall or actual fused correlation of the MTN name with its service.

MTN is without doubt, one of the most thoroughly researched, developed and successful telecom brands in Nigeria, as such; losing market share to it competitors after more than a decade is actually self-induced.

We all know that brands with the largest market share tend to have lower advertising and production costs, a broader and more loyal customer base, and enough popularity to counter their competitors’ moves. Can we say this of MTN? I doubt seriously.

MTN has forgotten what its core brand was meant to stand for. It naively thought “everywhere you go” wide coverage was the only thing consumers’ care about. Perhaps they would find this to be wrong soonest