Defend Truth


The road to oblivion for Cell C could be morphed into a marketing dream


Jon Cherry is a business strategist and publisher whose focus is innovation and building better brands.

There is no greater catalyst for urgent and radical renewal than the imminent, ominous spectre of defeat. This is a gift that should be cherished.

There are a few South African brands, the thought of which carry with them a warm “trigger of nostalgia” that you can feel is buried deep down in the space somewhere between “vivid memories of unboxing your very first cellphone” and “the feeling of walking gingerly into the vast, sterile foyer of your first serious job”.

Lion Lager is one of them; Mainstay is another. And for some inexplicable reason, Cell C holds a special space in my vast library of ol’ “feel good” trademarks.

Inexplicable because I personally have never owned a Cell C cellphone contract or have ever even approached them for a casual quote (just to see if I should consider migrating away from the long-term relationship that I do have with my mobile phone service provider).

The brand is perhaps just such an integral part of the social fabric of our country that one just can’t help but feel something for it regardless of whether you have ever bought anything from them or not.

When they first started out, Cell C was a jarringly edgy brand.

I clearly remember one of their ads, featuring a rather nerdy-looking guy waking up in bed with the arms of two young women draped over him, accompanied by the classic copy line “Tell somebody”, causing quite a stir. “Cell C for yourself…” was the advertising payoff line back then and it’s one that really stuck.

Long before he was an international superstar, Trevor Noah was recruited as their unofficial spokesperson. He was their CEO, the Chief Experience Officer and did a superb job of making the Cell C brand so much more personally relatable than the other options that were available.

At one point Zola 7 was a feature of their brand, as was that lady with the very whispery, unnecessarily smoky-sounding voice. These days those smoky-voice ads would be called “ASMRvertising” and probably have marketing academics studying them for their groundbreaking approach.

Winning countless ad industry awards year in and year out was par for the course for Cell C.

They weren’t afraid to take a chance. Making fun of themselves gave the brand an aura that can only really be described as similar to that of the allure of Richard Branson’s Virgin.

But Cell C as a business has really struggled for a while. Profitability has eluded them throughout their existence. Competing against their enormous rivals — the first- and second-most valuable brands in South Africa — has taken its toll.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cell number recycling by SA networks leaves customers fuming and inconvenienced

A few years ago, in an attempt to reduce costs, they closed the majority of their retail outlets, retrenched staff and had to recapitalise the business. Just this week they made the announcement to franchise 44 of their remaining 47 stores to willing buyers. The jobs of 400 employees are now at risk.

Unfortunately, the numbers and statistics do not indicate that the road ahead for Cell C is going to get any easier. In the fight for new customers with MTN and Vodacom, Cell C will not only be paying far more to acquire market share with a weaker, less available brand but will also suffer higher churn rates and lower transaction amounts from those customers.

The phenomenon of “double jeopardy” made famous by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute is a stark reality for all follower brands struggling to simply benchmark progress in a highly competitive environment.

Eager for stability and some experience as to how to right the ship, management have now decided to bring in some very senior ex-Vodacom executives to help turn things around. But the real problem that Cell C is facing will not simply dissolve thanks to the presence of brilliant minds alone.

The real issue is that Cell C is the third biggest mobile network brand in South Africa. And for as long as they continue to play in that marketplace by the rules that are dictated to them by their far bigger competitors, they will continue to struggle to acquire and maintain a viable customer base and will slowly slide out of play.

But what Cell C does still have is a good brand that carries social weight.

They also have nothing to lose.

They have the freedom — believe it or not — to have some fun with their strategy. They can take risks that their peers cannot. For this reason, there is hope. With some creative thinking, shrewd tactics, a team that’s not afraid of a white-knuckle ride into the unknown, Cell C could certainly live again.

Cutting costs doesn’t magically unlock growth. At some point, the innovation nous needs to be tapped and the unfair advantage of being the completely discounted underdog needs to be kindled.

The road to oblivion for Cell C is most certainly not yet determined, but if they were wise, they would own it as if it were.

There is no greater catalyst for urgent and radical renewal than the imminent, ominous spectre of defeat. This is a gift that should be cherished.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever rooted for the potential refloating of a brand before, but I’m certainly hoping that this one finds the courage to make a spectacular comeback. It’s depressing to keep on reading about South African companies that are finding the going tough in this challenging environment. What we really need is a good news story of one that dug deep and channeled that legendary South African gees and never-say-die attitude to show us all how it can be done.

Cell C you can.

We all know that you can. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Tebogo Mapheto says:

    Cell C’s story resonate with the resilience and the fighting spirit of our citizens and the country at large. No matter how big the obstacles the company faces the employees are determined to overcome them, this time around in my view Cell C has the right leadership to achieve great things.

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