9Mobile: The Metaphor for Brand with 9 Lives

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Nine years after entering the Nigerian market with a bang, the Etisalat brand seems to have fought and won the greatest battle of its life following the successful transition that gave birth to 9Mobile recently. In this report, Raheem Akingbolu digs into the history of the brand and how it has continued to defy the odds and difficult operating environment

At a time many people think the telecommunications market had lost any room for expansion, Etisalat entered in 2008 as the fourth GSM operator with a promise that it would change the game. Of course, not a few analysts dismissed the promise as a dream of an ambitious brand. But to the promoters of the brand, who stated from day one that they had done enough market research before coming in, the brand promise was not a fluke. Though the brand was left with very slim or no chance of survival, considering that the bulk of the high net worth and discerning subscribers at the heart of the market at that time already had at least one or two GSM network lines, but through articulated campaigns and exciting products, Etisalat quickly hit the ground running and became a brand to reckon with.

Deliberate and strategic brand differentiation, therefore, became necessary for Etisalat, as it’s stating the obvious that the network was contending with the challenges of being the fourth entrant. Thankfully, the telecommunication company got the message by creating innovative carrots to eat into the market share of existing operators. This share had given the early movers advantage through an undeniable seven-year headstart. Also, the brand leveraged the crest of innovation, youth and customer friendliness to build a strong equity.

Today, Etisalat has an impressive customer base of more than 21 million. It is also reputed for its generous freebies as well as for its relatively good internet services. It has won several awards based on quality of service indices and excellent customer service.

But all these notwithstanding, the gains of the last nine years of the brand, which has its roots in the United Arab Emirates, got threatened few months ago. Like a hole in the heart, the Brand Etisalat felt a deep pang when it was discovered that the company had failed to fulfill its financial obligations to three banks in the country and their foreign affiliates. The company was said to have failed to repay a loan of over N541billion it secured from the consortium in 2015. Surprisingly, handlers of the brand wriggled out of the crisis and opened a fresh chapter.

Enters 9Mobile

This line, “We shall never surrender,” in Winston Churchill’s famous speech commonly titled ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ delivered at the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, stands very significant.

Britain was in peril after the miraculous evacuation of its soldiers from ambush in the beaches of Dunkirk. Adolf Hitler’s armies held a huge advantage and attacked fiercely. Ultimately, Britain, along with the allied forces, fought and survived World War II and never surrendered.

In this snap history, Britain embodies resilience; the ability to survive, bounce back, and thrive. If there is a need to look for an example in this clime and time, 9Mobile (formerly known as Etisalat Nigeria) would probably be the best pick. The telecommunications company mirrors this rare essence, successfully undergoing brand migration even in the midst of obvious challenges.

In the past few months, media reports painted a gloomy future for the telecoms brand on the account of its bid to renegotiate a $1.2billion loan it took in 2013, which turned problematic following the recession, which kicked in early 2016.

The crux: Etisalat Nigeria sought to renegotiate the loan terms but the consortium of 13 banks – the lenders – did not agree even though 42 per cent of the loan had been repaid.

It was a precarious situation as the banks were determined to recover every dollar loaned the telco, like their survival depended on it. Well, for some of them, it does to a reasonable extent.

The Crossroads

Despite the noble interventions of telecoms industry regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission and the Central Bank of Nigeria, it still seemed the telco would still go down especially after its majority shareholders, Emirates Telecommunications Corporation and Mubadala Development Company, Abu Dhabi’s Sovereign Wealth Fund managers, both of the United Arabs Emirate, exited.

With all of these, the competition among mobile network operators remained as fierce as ever. Nevertheless, 9Mobile did not experience significant drop in its numbers, whether in subscriber base or bottom line.

The negative perception of the telco being in trouble was seen to have been cancelled out by its strong disposition, as it continued its activities unfazed – the demeanour of an entity that is confident about tomorrow.

In trying times, resilient brands are known to draw strength from their purpose – their core values – and not the drive for profit. The telco’s value of empowering people and passion for excellence has apparently been its driving force in this period.

In spite of the heat, the company rounded off the competition for its flagship Prize for Literature with a well-attended award ceremony in Lagos, at which Nigeria-born author, Jowhor Ile, won, thereby becoming the first Nigerian to win the prestigious literature prize. It was the fourth edition of the prize.

The telecoms company continued to expand its 4G LTE network, launching it in Abuja, Kano and Port Harcourt between May and June. It continued to launch and improve various products and services; engage subscribers at its quarterly Customer Forum in Kaduna in May; and affirmed its continued support to Small and Medium scale Enterprises (SMEs) with the 16th edition of its networking and interaction platform, Market Access Forum held in Enugu, in June.

Its Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives were never halted. Its interventions in health care, youth development, and educations remained in top gear. These include Career Counselling session in April, in which hundreds of students from 13 secondary schools in Lagos benefited. American-born global girl-child education advocate and filmmaker, Zuriel Oduwole, was a lead influencer that inspired the students during the session. In the same month, the Etisalat Telecommunications Engineering Postgraduate Programme in Ahmadu Bello University took in a new set of students and hosted a lecturer of Plymouth University, UK, Dr. Zaki Ahmed, as a facilitator.

This is the stuff of a strong and resilient brand, staying true to its promise no matter what.

Rebranding

The changes of the past few months brought about the need to rebrand the telco, which in 2008, when it launched, asked Nigerians to get on the phone and express themselves with its ‘Let’s talk 9ja’ campaign.

This campaign, which was re-launched in 2012 with ‘0809ja for life’, resonated very well with Nigerians, particularly young people. Therefore, it was not surprising that it quickly became the fastest growing mobile telecoms network in the country. It has since then grown to about 20 million subscribers.

This 0809ja heritage, reflected in later ventures such as Cloud 9, a music platform for the youth, which was launched in 2014, and 9TV, which began streaming in 2016. And today, it is the foundation of the new brand identity – 9mobile.

Apart from being more visually appealing, the new brand identity, as the Chief Executive Officer, 9Mobile, Boye Olusanya, said during its launch, reflected the bold and creative attributes which the organisation shared with its valued subscribers.

Olusanya said the new name and brand is a deliberate representation and confirmation of its Nigerian heritage, 9ja-centricity, and another phase of its evolution over 9 years of operations in Nigeria. He added that though its name and brand changes, the telco will continue to deliver excellent services to its customers and remain true to the values it has operated with since Day 1.

“In our 9 years of operations, we have remained at the forefront of innovation and take pride in consistently delivering superior experiences to our subscribers. We continue to establish meaningful partnerships with our customers and partners by providing platforms that support their goals and aspirations,” Olusanya said.

The new logo represents resilience and continuity, and also expresses the brand’s thoughts about the future, particularly of digital technology and its continued impact on communication and human interactions.

Being a number-themed logo, it reflects the network’s futuristic slant. The colour green, both its light and dark variants, reflects vibrancy, dynamism, life, and youth as well as the brand’s ‘Nigerianness’.

Through it all, 9Mobile has shown that built into the core of its DNA as a brand is the ability to rebound from the worst and fare even better afterwards.

As brand migration process continues, 9Mobile seems to echo Churchill very loudly: “We shall never surrender”, “We are here for you, here for 9ja”.

Between Etisalat and Econet

In today’s market, the name ‘Airtel’ rings a bell even in the ear of a 12 year-old lad. He will surely know that it is one of the major players in the nation’s telecommunications sector. However, hardly can he know the name that was given to the telecommunications giant at the point of entering the market. And going by the ‘experience’ of this imaginary 12 year-old boy, in another eight years, it is debatable if another 12 year-old will know if there was a company once named Celtel. The reason for this is that Airtel, has changed names for at least five times. The brand at different times was known as Econet, V-mobile, Vodacom, Celtel Zain and now Airtel.

Since penultimate week, when Etisalat rebranded to 9Mobile, discussions have centered on what its future would look like.

However, it is generally believed that the handlers of the brand got it right from the word go, considering their choice of chief executive officer, Boye Olusanya, who was strongly involved in the various rebranding activities undergone by Airtel. Besides, observers also see the retention of colours green and black, as strategic and significant for the attention the brand required at the moment.

The two colours are synonymous with Etisalat and this will keep the memory of the brand in the consciousness of its patrons. Then, unlike Econet that experienced boardroom politics from the beginning, Etisalat appears to have a smooth operation in that regard. With this and the determination of its spin doctors to make things work, 9Mobile may be the final word.