How has Etisalat Remained Relatively Clean in a Market Full of Pitfalls?


By October 2016, Etisalat would have done 8 years in the Nigerian telecommunications market. As August 2016 approaches and industry players would be busy compiling review documents to mark the 15th anniversary of GSM services in Nigeria, it is essentially not out of place to first examine a player who started seven years after the others but which, by every standard, except in SIM acquisition numbers, has pushed the boundaries so hard it has become the brand to beat.

Across the industry, especially among the four mobile operators of MTN, Etisalat, Airtel and Glo, it looks like this brand with roots in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates is enemy number one of the rest. Even the market leader MTN seems to always looking over its shoulder specifically to see what Etisalat is doing.

First sign was during the mobile number portability campaign of a couple of years ago. MTN celebrated the poaching of Etisalat’s comic advertising face, Afeez Ayetoro, otherwise known as Saka in the still very popular “I don Port” television commercial.

Its market share may still be far from toppling the industry but for a brand that came in when everything seemed to have been taken, Etisalat has had a decent showing with close to 25 million active lines.

A dipstick survey across segments of the Nigerian market suggest this brand scores high in overall perception index. Because of the poor nature of telecom services in the country, most Nigerians have grown to get used to owning two or even three lines. For some, the second line acts as a backup when their number one lines fail to connect. For others, they have grown to believe that while some lines serve better for voice calls, others are pretty great for data.

If you get a sample of those who use two telephone lines for voice, chances are over 70 percent of them would say their second line was Etisalat. And this was an outcome taken straight from the launch strategy of this brand which at that precarious early stage had opted to grow in consumer preference by playing strategic second fiddle.

But that is not the strategy that that has worked for the brand and which seems to still be working. And it is important to discuss them one after the other.

Cleanliness is next to brand-liveliness

It does seem that presenting a clean brand has been a mantra this brand holds close to heart. Brands fight many marketing battles in the boardroom and a number of these bitter battles find their ways to the public space. In the fight for marketshare, all manner games are played. Some of these include deliberate regulatory infractions, stealing from the customer and overpromising in the face of low capacity.

Of all the operators, it appears Etisalat is the brand with the fewest of issues. In the regulatory area, Etisalat ranks tops in compliance. As a matter fact, while other operators were receiving series of fines for overall network quality, no one touched Etisalat except in very few areas. Matter of fact the most notable fine the brand has received was during the review of SIM registration exercise when the brand received a fine of about N7 million in September 2105. Even here, Etisalat, like other brands were not directly involved as the blame fell much more squarely on the doorsteps of vendors and agents who were out to score points.

Etisalat has also been able to build a stronger bond with its vendors and partners. Last year, market leader, MTN found itself in trouble with regulators and was fined over N1.1 trillion. Although this was heavily reduced after long periods of negotiations and diplomatic shuttles by the South African President, Jacob Zuma, the brand was hurt in many areas. Glo on the other hand has remained unchanged since it was launched in 2003.

Glo has built the reputation for unstable relationships with their partners and, till date, has failed to sustain a lasting relationship with its media partners for instance. Nearly all the operators have had issues in this area, some of which resulted in court disputes still unresolved.

But somehow, Etisalat has managed to stave off crises in this area.

Network quality and the rewards accompanying it

If you go around the market and across the states of the federation and ask questions of which network has the best quality, chances are you will get at least 57 percent giving it to Etisalat. Even the regulatory NCC has time and again rewarded the brand for high voice quality while imposing various degrees of fines on the others.

Barely six months into operations in Nigeria, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) pronounced Etisalat Nigeria’s best network based on quality of service indices.

In 2014, the awards for Best Customer Centric Network in Nigeria (the first ever awarded to any operator in Nigeria by the NCC) also went to the brand. It also won the award for Network with Easiest Access to Customer Care Helpline and another for Quality and Regular Attendance at NCC outreach programmes, a strong evidence that it takes regulatory relationship management very seriously.

It will be recalled that Etisalat also won awards for Easy Access to Customer Care Channels and Regular Attendance & Effective Participation at NCC Consumer Outreach Programmes at the 9th Anniversary of the NCC Consumer Parliament in 2013.

Innovation draws people 

It’s not as if the other networks have not been innovating; they would have perished if they were not. But somehow, Etisalat has stolen the innovation highground and has been building its reputation around this since it opened shop nearly 8 years ago.

At launch in October 2008, what was a commodity for other operators was spectacularly branded by Etisalat and that gave generated the kind of excitement that presented it with a strong foothold in the market.

That commodity was the branding of phone lines. Dubbed “0809uchoose.” Etisalat went to town with the news that people could actually choose the phone numbers that represented their names on the phone dial-pad. That was before feature phones were the vogue.

Other operators were doing this for a few high networth individuals. But Etisalat came in and turned it to a branded product that appealed to the ego and vanity needs of the mass of people.

Innovation was also behind Etisalat’s branding of a number of its products and made it possible for many to buy into them. And they chose the simplest of tags for them – Easy. There is EasyFlex, EasyStarter, EasyBlaze, EasyCliq, EasyBusiness among a number of others and what this did is to make the complications of technology to appear very “easy” for the consumers and make for quicker uptake.

In the midst of the confusion that heralded the nationwide Bank Verification Number registration last year, it was Etisalat that came to the rescue of many people by creating the platform for bank customers to verify their BVN status. Of course the brand must have made some significant income from this, but it also made a name for itself as one that solves problems.

Youths are the leaders of tomorrow’s brand

“The young and the young at heart” is the most common buzzword in the Nigerian marketing environment. It has been so used, that even brands targeting octogenarians are not left put in the battle game to be seen to be relevant among young people.

The reason is simple: Nigeria has just about the the largest young population in the world in proportional terms. Stats are hard to come by here but it is generally agrees that the youth segment of Nigeria constitute well over 60 percent of the population. If you look at the conservative estimate of the 170 million people said to be living in Nigeria, you will understand why everyone wants to identify with this teeming community.

If there is any brand that was very successful in the youth segment, that brand must be Etisalat. Right from launch, Etisalat made no pretensions about it desire to own this segment. First they hired popular singer, Bankole Wellington, better known as Banky W for its theme song and Banky did a great job by infusing the street lingo, Naija (for Nigeria) in a song that still drives Etisalat eight years down the turbulent marketing road.

The bond between the brand and the young segment has chiefly been responsible for the immense success recorded in a market new entrants were, then, given no chance to earn any decent bragging rights. And as is the trend in every market, competition quickly began to design deliberate messaging and campaigns to target this segment.

MTN launched Pulse and a number of other products and Airtel came out with Trybe. Glo has made no real deliberate efforts except with its multitude of brand ambassadors drawn from the Nigerian music and movie industries.

Growth may have slowed for all players in the industry and revenue is thinning down thanks to slowing voice market, But brands are innovating around mobile data, clearly targeting more of the youth segment who are identifiably the ones Facebooking, Tweeting, Instagramming and 2Going.

With its roots deep in this segment, Etisalat’s future in the industry is easily predictable. They young people the brand met in the market as restless teens are already out of school and probably working or are in business. They have strong bond with the brand. Others are growing up. With the brand still in their hangouts, speaking to them in the very language they use in interacting with one another.

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