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Cell C re-invented? Brand, social media and legal specialists are not so sure

Cell C’s new logo could be open to challenge, and the brand’s silence on social media criticisms shows the company is not genuine in its efforts to become consumer-centric, say experts. But Cell C says it’s engaging people online, that customer feedback has been positive and that questions about its logo are “okay with us”.

Cell C raced further down reinvention road with a slew of new print, television and radio adverts positioning Trevor Noah as the company’s new CEO (that’s “Chief Experience Officer” to you) on the back of a marketing stunt that brought the brand significant social media burn.

“Cell C’s thinking was fine, but the execution was contrived and transparent. It was a staged play that shows Cell C is trying to control everything,” says Dave Duarte, who lectures on social media at UCT’s Graduate School of Business. “It’s a pity because there are enough complaints all over the web about Cell C’s service, that they could have found something real to apologise about and been authentic,” said Duarte. People became excited about Cell C’s apology advert, Duarte says, because it positioned the mobile network as a real company that acknowledged social media and apologised for bad service in what could have been a pioneering move. “But then they just played us for idiots.”

Creative director at 2.0 Media Jason Xenopolous says the fact that Cell C moved so quickly and visibly to jump on a vocal complaint ostensibly signalled a complete shift in the way corporations were engaging in consumer dialogue. “It seemed to be a signal that a whole new era had begun. But it wasn’t anything new. Rather it was the death spasms of the old era trying to hold on. It is essentially a traditional marketing campaign that is paying lip service to a new direction. We were all so excited to see something real and then became so depressed to see that it was really the same old bullshit again.”

Photo: Dave Duarte and Arthur Goldstuck

Xenopolous says Cell C may just get away with its marketing stunt because its main client base is not the “twitterati”, but consumers who, for the most part, live outside the social media spectrum. “At the end of the day, the customer having a voice and being at the centre of the conversation is the shift that is taking place. Whether you engage or not, it is happening. If Cell C’s action doesn’t translate into better customer service, this is going to blow up in its face whether the campaign is successful or not.”

Xenopolous relays how, as a creative director at Young & Rubicam, he worked on the MTN account. “Back then we realised that customer service is the only real differentiator in the cellular space. There is complete product parity in the industry. As an agency we said to MTN let’s focus on customer service, but this was never realised because MTN admitted they couldn’t deliver on a brand promise of improved customer service. This is more tragic because Cell C is pretending to be customer-centric,” he says.

Local marketing pioneer Jon Cherry of Cherryflava says the creative strategy for the campaign is nothing new. “The adverts don’t work. They don’t say what Cell C is offering the consumer that is different. It positions Cell C as the jokers in the pack. The cellular industry is a serious business and service is an even more serious issue. They’ve done a Terry Tate. Trevor Noah is being positioned in the same way as Terry Tate was in the Reebok commercials, but what does it all mean? He doesn’t speak about how the customer experience is going to be different,” says Cherry.

Watch: The Terry Tate adverts for Reebok

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck says the campaign was bold and dramatic in its recognition of social media, but that following the “mea culpa” advert, the integration of the campaign fell flat. “Cell C is a traditional business waking up to the importance of social media, but without fully appreciating the role of social media. Twitter is not a broadcast medium and to treat it as a broadcast medium is a brand fail. You have an influential core of highly literate social media pundits commenting on Twitter, and it will damage Cell C’s image there.” Goldstuck says, because of Cell C’s broad target market and the size of the company, it was unlikely this brand damage would be widespread.

“People forget that Cell C is the third biggest cellular service provider in the country in terms of number of customers, and for a company of that size to issue a mea culpa is significant and ground-breaking. The question is whether it will live up to the promise of sorting out service issues. This is a major challenge that requires massive investment and huge strategic intervention,” he says.

Goldstuck points out while Cell C’s acknowledgement of social media was unprecedented in South Africa, negative issues included that the company was not engaging properly with social media and the nature of its relationship with Trevor Noah. “It is clear that Noah is an embedded social media activist. I don’t think anyone will deny that, least of all him. Whether this was orchestrated or not, he is an embedded social media activist and this places great responsibility on Cell C to show that it is not only responding in an embedded-type environment,” says Goldstuck.

Watch: The Cell C advert featuring Trevor Noah

Cell C fought back saying the network is actively engaging with social media critics. “I personally responded to many complaints and I am engaging with a couple of bloggers.  We have been very transparent and clear about the campaign, the intention of the campaign and how we went about launching it,” said Lars Reichelt, the real CEO (chief executive officer) of Cell C.

Reichelt says public reaction has been positive. “We are engaging with consumers in an unprecedented manner and we are getting the feedback we want and need.  The campaign has already resulted in more than 2,400 posts on the website since Monday and more than 300 dropped calls have been logged. Customers want to engage and we are providing a platform for them to do so,” says Reichelt, who calls the campaign a first in South Africa.

Digital marketer Andy Hadfield questions whether merging with Cell C’s main site was a smart strategy. “The ‘Tell Trevor’ initiative would be clever if Cell C separated its front door property or main site from its customer engagement site. You don’t want to mix engagements and air your complaints and dirty laundry for the whole world to see on a site where you are promoting product. It provides a negative distraction which is extremely dangerous.” Hadfield says the market would be more forgiving if Cell C managed complaint resolution effectively and transparently, and visibly upped its game. “If it doesn’t deliver then things will backfire on the brand.”

This sentiment was echoed by Cambrient founder Jarred Cinman who says: “Cell C has given people a place to air their grievances, but I am not sure if it has worked through an operational strategy on how to deal with those grievances. They’re putting a lot on the line. We all know that Cell C has been a bit of a broken organisation for a while. This looks like a calculated campaign and what will be interesting to see if they turn public sentiment around. If so it won’t matter that people like me scoffed at them on social media. However, one must remember that this type of marketing works locally because people don’t interrogate things very deeply in South Africa,” said Cinman.

“I think Cell C has just compounded its error,” says Walter Pike, former AAA School of Advertising faculty head and digital marketing specialist. “They haven’t listened to anything anyone is saying and are just continuing down the same road. What I find quite bizarre is that they’ve published a myth, it’s been revealed as incorrect and Cell C is now trying to perpetuate a fairytale.” Pike says the Cell C adverts showed the brand had totally ignored what had been written about them on blogs and on social media sites like Twitter. “The errors have been pointed out to Cell C and then we get a run of new adverts that completely ignore what has been said. I think Cell C is playing a dangerous game.” Pike says the mistake Cell C was making was seeing social media as broadcast and not conversational media.

The experts agreed that salvation for Cell C lay in admitting it had made a social media misstep, listening more carefully to complaints, engaging influencers and consumers more readily and showing that it was pioneering the medium with authenticity and good intent rather than using it as a device for a marketing ploy.

Photo: Jared Cinman and Jason Xenopolous.

Reichelt responds by saying the adverts were part of a journey that included significant infrastructure investment. “Over the next couple of months we want to address the key issues we have identified – ‘inch-by-inch’ if you want – and we want to take our customers (existing and future ones) with us on that journey. We are investing more than R5 billion in our new 4Gs network and are improving the existing 2G network. We are also investing an additional R2 billion in our new customer care and billing system.”

While brand and social experts questioned the integrity of Cell C’s commitment to being consumer-centric, local lawyer Paul Jacobson says the company’s new logo could be open to challenge. “There are various versions of the logo, some which include the colours of the South African flag and others that look like the copyright symbol. If they are trying to trademark the copyright symbol, then Cell C will have problems with the registration if challenged, and it can be challenged on a number of grounds.”

Jacobson says the key issue with trademarks was that they need to be a distinctive mark for products and services. “Cell C doesn’t have a proprietary claim of ownership to the copyright symbol, so that might become an issue. Another issue is the copyright symbol is well known internationally in a very different context. The copyright symbol itself doesn’t distinguish Cell C’s brand at all in that it has nothing to do with the company’s products or services.” Jacobson says, if the trademark was contested and if Cipro found the contest to be valid, then the new Cell C trademark could be de-registered. “This would be a waste of the money spent on developing the logo and trademarking it. From a reputation perspective there are issues, and Cell C’s own logo could be turned against it in a form of a parody and the company wouldn’t be protected.”

Reichelt is cavalier about the question of the trademark issue. “That some commentators feel inclined to disagree with the look and feel or are questioning the ‘trademarkability’ of our logo is okay with us,” he says, adding that the new logo represented Cell C putting the customer at the centre of its world.

By Mandy de Waal

Read more: Herman Manson’s “If only Cell C had hired Alex Hunter”, “Cell C to sell towers for network launch”, and TechCentral’s “Ngcaba link to new national network plan”.

Main photo: Cell C CEO, Lars Reichelt


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