On March 3 2017, Tigo and Airtel announced the merger of their Ghana operations into one entity; a crucial step in a bid to overtake Vodafone as the number two player in an ultra-competitive and increasingly unprofitable telecom industry. By November, the combined entity was officially launched under the name AirtelTigo.
The post-merger integration of the two entities provides a goldmine of strategic marketing opportunities. Managers of the combined entity have an opportunity to either create shared value (for themselves, their shareholders and Ghanaians), only advance the interest of their shareholders or engage in non-value addition activities that win them awards but creates no value for their businesses. For instance, Capital Bank won three banking awards a year before its collapse.
Whatever the outcome eventually is, it starts with certain key decisions, some of which the new entity has started making. In this article, I will discuss the decisions around developing a brand ID, activating the new AirtelTigo, and finally conclude with a discussion of some strategic implications for the future as well as the most threatened brand by this merger, Vodafone.
“The Ghanaian consumer has not proven to be very brand sophisticated in the past…Switching equity in the mind of the Ghanaian consumer is not easy.”
The new brand: AirtelTigo
Key to the new brand identity is the choice of distinctive assets that the merged entity will use. The most important of these distinctive assets is arguably the brand name. There are also decisions around the logo, color, and tagline, among others.
The new entity decided to go with the name AirtelTigo. Is this a good choice for a new name? According to Bob Palitz, a former telecom CEO in Ghana, “If your goal is to mollify both sides of a company that is said to be held 50/50 exactly…it’s brilliant. If your goal is marketing a product…not so much.” In other words, he believes the new name is brilliant if its goal is to satisfy the egos of both Airtel and Tigo, who hold a 50% share each in the new business. He goes further to suggest a new name, “Airgo” for the new entity. Many folks share this view, and would rather the new entity came up with “a more creative name”. I disagree.
If the goal is a results-focused marketing execution, as opposed to a razzmatazz of creativity for the sake of being creative, then the choice of AirtelTigo as the name for the new entity is brilliant. The naming decision should be driven by one question: what is our marketing and business objective with the new name? In the case of the merger of Tigo and Airtel, the most prudent objective will be to transfer the strong equity of both brands to the new entity. This makes sense given the fact that both brands are equally matched and have built significant equity in the Ghanaian market. Another driver of the naming decision will have to be the level of sophistication of the Ghanaian consumer. The Ghanaian consumer has not proven to be very brand sophisticated in the past. Several years after the currency redenomination in Ghana, Ghanaians still quote money in the old currency, and years after Zain became Airtel, many consumers still refer to Airtel as Zain. Switching equity in the mind of the Ghanaian consumer is not easy.
With these in mind, what were the available strategic options for naming the new entity? Kunal Basu’s article titled “Merging Brands after Mergers” identifies four strategies for merging corporate brands. These are: one brand (Airtel or Tigo); joint brand (AirtelTigo); flexible brand (Airtel and Tigo) and new brand (Airgo or something more creative).
A flexible brand is not possible in a small geography like Ghana because it will get confusing, referring to the same brand by both names. Adopting a one brand approach, Airtel or Tigo, will mean letting go of most of the equity of one half of the merger, and as previously stated, switching brand equity in Ghana is not easy to do. Given the level of sophistication of the consumer and the objective for the new name, a new brand will be significantly expensive to implement. It will demand significant budget to build and link it to the equities of the two brands. The only viable and prudent option left is the joint brand. Rather than spend on trying to rebuild associations, it allows the maintenance of current associations of both brands, and provides an opportunity to further extend these through marketing. For this same reason, the choice of logo (combination of the two logos), and colour (red & blue) are all brilliant decisions. Like K. Basu states, “… as in the case of Daimler-Chrysler, a joint brand may be the preferred option if each of the individual brands has evolved into national icons and eliminating one would imply repercussions for the merged firm both internally as well as externally”. Of course, this will not be the optimal choice if the objective was just to win a creative award. While Mr. Palitz may be right about what drove the choice of the name, this may in fact be one of the few occasions where the wrong incentives have led to the right decisions.
Activating AirtelTigo – One Big Family
Not surprisingly, the big idea for the launch of the new brand is most apt. Having worked with the agency responsible for this campaign, previously on the Tigo brand and more recently on other brands, the level of creativity in activating the new brand comes as no surprise. Having seen the execution over a one-week period however, I observe three drawbacks to the execution.
Drawback No. 1 – What exactly are they saying?
The headline for the campaign is Y’abↄ mu, and I can’t help but wonder what exactly that means. Since I moved to Accra from the then off-grid Ahafo community of Kenyasi, I have had course to ask this same question many times when I hear Accra folks speak Twi. The Twi spoken in Accra, is a curious blend of Asante Twi, Akwapim Twi and Fanti. So, for instance, “goat”, is universally referred to in Accra Twi as “Aponkyi”, when in fact, if you were speaking Asante Twi, the right word for “Goat” is “Abirekyie”. Similarly, “Who”, is almost universally referred to in Accra as “Hena”, the Akwapim version, and not “Hwan”, the Asante version. So, an Accra person will comfortably ask “Hena Aponkyi nie”, comfortably stringing a word each from Akwapim Twi, Fanti and Asante Twi to form one sentence. With Y’abↄ mu however, even if I expand my universe of Twi to cover all the Akan languages, I still cannot reconcile it with the word ‘merger’ or even a concept related to the coming together of two entities.
Of course, I can guess they mean to say Ya bomu. Using an online Twi dictionary, the word “merge” is translated as “bomu” or “ka bomu”. “To shatter”, on the other hand translates as “bↄ”. “Bↄ” in Twi can also mean “to hit”. Y’abↄ mu, can translate into “We have shattered the inside” or “We have hit the inside”.
Interestingly, the soundtrack chosen to accompany the executions also connotes this meaning. Those familiar with local tales will be familiar with the phrase “Me de re be bↄ mu”. It is associated with a nomadic mentally challenged man who travelled across the Brong Ahafo and parts of the Ashanti region in the 80s and early 90s . He would sing “Me de re be bↄ mu, me se me de re be bↄ mu” (essentially warning that he is about to hit it), just before he surprised strangers by slapping them in the face. In contemporary times, Magnom has borrowed this phrase in his song “My Baby”, the song that forms the inspiration for the sountrack of the “Y’abↄ mu” campaign.
“With Y’abↄ mu however, even if I expand my universe of Twi to cover all the Akan languages, I still cannot reconcile it with the word ‘merger’ or even a concept related to the coming together of two entities.”
In my view however, this is not a grave issue. The team may choose to correct it, but I don’t envisage it being grave. Unless of course, another brand chooses to be mischievous and makes a play on the words.
Drawback No. 2 – What exactly is the brand?
In any marketing execution, an important consideration is the linkage and what equity is being built. Looking at the visual executions of the new brand, it would seem the focus is on “Yabↄ mu”, and secondarily on “one big family”. The new brand, “AirtelTigo” is largely missing. Given that this is a new brand, there is the real risk of missing out on establishing the AitelTigo name, and confusing customers as to what the new name really is, especially since close to 40% of Ghanaians may not speak Akan and will not readily get the intended meaning of “Y’abↄ mu”. In the book How Brands Grow Part 2, authors Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp caution that: “When launching a new campaign, everyone’s attention is on the new: new message, new look and feel, new talent and new media (understandably – it’s exciting!). But we need to also be confident that category buyers who see the new campaign know which brand it is for.” In this instant, some category buyers may think the campaign is for the new brand called “Y’abↄ mu”.
Drawback No. 3 – What exactly is the benefit?
The merger creates certain new benefits that the merged entity should be building linkages to. For instance, a key competitive factor in the telecom industry is network effects. Having merged to form the second biggest network in Ghana, subscribers of Tigo and Airtel can now call both brands at on-net rates. Imagine if these two brands had such a deal at the time when they were different entities. The airwaves would have been flooded with advertising stressing the benefits customers get when they switch to get on-net rates for off-net calls. Why then are they not stressing this benefit with the new entity? I subscribe to the view that advertising messages need to be focused, clear and singular. This singular message should build a linkage to an important category entry point (CEP). In the executions seen so far, the messages may be present, but they are many and not focused.
Vodafone – the future is uncertain. Ready?
The most threatened by all these happenings is Vodafone. Just by this merger, they lose their number two position, which they attained and consolidated some six years ago. Whether this new market position becomes the new normal or not will be determined in equal measure by what Vodafone does, and what AirtelTigo does.
The first implication of the merger is that Vodafone has no option but to increase its marketing budget. Luckily, as if by design, the Vodafone group in October introduced a new brand identity, dropping the eight-year tagline of “Power to you” for “The future is exciting. Ready?”. The new entity is an opportunity to build and refresh memory structures and strengthen the brand’s mental availability.
Vodafone will also have to protect its turf. Two things are at risk here, first is the hold of Vodafone on the business to business (B2B) sector, and the relative position in terms of physical availability. A B2B reinforcement strategy should already have been developed by now, and ideally should be in the process of execution. Traditionally, Vodafone and MTN have been the go to brands when it comes to the B2B market. Their capability in providing last mile fibre further provides advantages especially in serving the B2B market. Vodafone will have to consolidate this position, given that as a merged entity, AirtelTigo may have access to more resources to acquire capabilities that allow them to compete more favourably in this space.
In terms of physical availability, the merged entity is more likely to be an equally strong, if not superior, player in terms of network and sales coverage. Tigo has traditionally been very strong in the south west of Ghana. Combining with Airtel makes their distribution and network capabilities in the southern part of Ghana a lot more formidable. In the northern part of Ghana where Tigo has been traditionally weak, Airtel has been relatively stronger, and a combination with Tigo provides a stronger muscle to compete, in terms of network and distribution with Vodafone. Vodafone should have by now conducted a benchmarking exercise with the new brand, especially in the areas of distribution, coverage and capacity. Fibre to the home also provides bundling and branding opportunities that Vodafone can exploit. If Vodafone is to regain the number two position, they must beat AirtelTigo on physical availability.
To be clear though, the path for Vodafone to regain their number two position may not be very arduous. While the merger does make AirtelTigo the number two player in the market, their lead over Vodafone is a slim one. Using September voice subscription numbers, Airtel Tigo will have about 9.7 million subscribers, compared to Vodafone’s 9.1 million subscribers, a difference of about 600,000 subscribers. If the merger had happened in April 2017, the difference would have been about 900,000. That means between April and September, Vodafone closed a third of the gap between them and AirtelTigo. If that rate were to persist, Vodafone will catch up with the combined entity in about 10months. Given the prevalence of multi-sim subscribers in Ghana, the numbers may look grimmer for AirtelTigo if duplication of subscribers is taken into consideration.
Achieving and consolidating post-merger success
“Empirical research into the performance consequences of mergers and acquisitions makes for depression reading”, states Robert M. Grant in the book Contemporary Strategy Analysis. Whether AirtelTigo becomes another one of these depressing scripts or not will depend very much on how the post-merger integration is handled.
From a marketing management point of view, the new entity would need to harmonise marketing management processes and practices, bringing together the best practices from both companies to create a consistent and superior marketing management framework. Luckily for the new entity, there are key staff in the combined entity today who have stridden the corridors of both companies and may be uniquely capable of identifying and bringing the best from both firms to bear on the new entity. AirtelTigo’s best hope for marketing execution is to make use of this unique capability, over external talent that may not be as uniquely placed to execute such a harmonisation.
From an advertising strategy point of view, the little we have seen suggests a well-integrated communication strategy that can achieve significant reach. Beyond achieving reach, the key task is to build additional equity while not losing the positive equity of both Tigo and Airtel. This will involve identifying the most relevant reasons or occasions when people buy within the telecom space and building the connections from these reasons and occasions to the new AirtelTigo brand. If done properly, they will grow their mental market share, and ultimately, maintain or increase their lead over Vodafone
Finally, the competing interests of the corporate headquarters of both Airtel and Tigo should not be allowed to affect decision making of the new entity. The lack of complete control at the headquarters level by either Airtel or Tigo may have helped create a good post-merger brand ID; it should not be allowed to become the bane of a harmonisation of marketing practices and successful execution.
Abdul-Nasser Alidu is a strategy & marketing executive who is also passionate about developing sustainable solutions to the many problems facing Africa. He focuses on applying empirical science to the practice of marketing & strategy and solving problems peculiar to developing nations like Ghana.