Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Cellphone Wars: Part 2

Marketing in The Gambia can be roughly divided into two epochs: the pre-Africell period (also known as the "stick a few billboards on the Banjul-Serekunda highway, do a few spots before the one-o-clock news on rajo gambia, hope we get noticed" period), and the post-Africell ("keep throwing everything you have at the wall - some of it will invariably stick, and even if it doesn't you'll at least get noticed") one. When Africell first opened up shop, they had the unenviable position of having to dislodge a firmly established market leader, and convince thousands of users to switch phone lines (with all the headaches that a change of numbers entails*). They reacted in (what would soon come to be regarded as) typical Africell style: throw enough marketing resources at a problem, and it'll go away.

All businesses are set up with one goal in mind: to get you, the customer, to hand over your hard-earned cash to them, for assorted goods and/or services. Except for the most unsophisticated ones, all businesses try to hide this fact behind layer upon layer of fuzzy advertising wool, pretending that they in fact love you and are in fact, for your money's worth, going out of their way to provide you with far greater service than could be reasonably expected, really, and that none of their competitors would ever even think of providing you with (just in case you're thinking of switching). Before Africell, most Gambian companies didn't really try very hard to hide this "money flows one way" fact from their customers - some (usually the ones which had monopolies) even seemed to be purposely flaunting it, providing terrible customer service (the only reasonable explanation you could come up with for some of the things these companies got away with).

From the first, Africell were everywhere. As is evident in the first two paragraphs of this essay, they built a myth around themselves, doing everything so big and with so much class they turned everyone into gushing fans, and left no space to mention a certain other cellphone company. Orange started to rival green as the color you could see everywhere you went in the country. Models** (usually teenagers or young people) were hired and put into situations where they were happily using their mobile phones, gazing enraptured into the tiny backlit screens in varying states of bliss - these situations were photographed and plastered on billboards on all the major highways in the country (including the ones leading from the airport, an important lure for people coming into the country), and as ads in all the local newspapers. Every week a new feature came out, with corresponding billboards and ads in all local media (radio, TV, the papers). There were competitions, including the famous million-dalasi one, all held with much fanfare and much "for the first time in the Gambia"s. There was the "Face of Africell" media event on TV, probably the most watched Gambian television event since "Maria De Los Angeles" gripped the nation in its soap opera-tic claws every Tuesday night. Local causes were sponsored - from Nawetaan teams to youth associations. T-shirts were printed and given out free. Numerous competitions were held. Faster than it takes you to charge your mobile phone, Africell had created a convincing image of itself as the rich but kindly Uncle who came to your house bearing presents every week when you were a kid (even though, unbeknownst to you, this "Uncle" was actually the landowner, visiting to get weekly rent money from your Dad), and cast Gamcell as the crummy, dyspeptic Uncle with false teeth who was always giving you a cuff around the head, and then taking you into a headlock and not letting go until you started crying***.

Gamcell tried to retaliate in style, stepping up the number of ads they had on TV, half-heartedly putting up a few billboards, even coming up with new slogans for their services ("Yaay Boroom"****). They donated to a few causes, more for the spirit of the thing than anything - when it came right down to it, Africell's marketing machine was simply out of everyone else's league.

Had they started out equals, Africell would perhaps in the end have overtaken and eventually subsumed Gamcell. But Gamcell's early start and deep entrenchment from the beginning went well in its favor, and whilst the number of Africell subscribers grew***** every day, Gamcell's established customer base, who had gotten used to their numbers and saw no reason to switch (or else were deep-pocketed****** enough to get two phones). And so the two companies existed in a state of stalemate, both claiming a greater amount of subscribers than its competitor, both offering new services on average once every month, from talktime credit bonuses to answering machines which fielded calls whilst you were asleep.

In the thrilling final episode: A new cellphone company comes to town; The auctioning of the people's mobile phone service of choice; "hearts and minds"; the future

* Getting a new SIM card is the least of your worries, when you get a new line: you have to transfer all your old numbers over to the new one, not exactly as straightforward a procedure as you would think; then you have to inform everyone you have given the old number about the new one (the only way to do this being to call/SMS each and every single one of them your new number). It didn't help that right from the beginning cross-network (from Africell to Gamcell, and vice versa) calls were prohibitively expensive, and cross-network SMSes were simply impossible, so much so that switching from Africell to Gamcell, e.g., meant you also lost all your Gamcell buddies who didn't have Africell lines - they stopped calling you, and you them, because neither party could afford it, and friendship really isn't worth those kinds of prices.

** The Africell Model, like the Bond Girl, is a much coveted position, which explains why all those grins on all those model's faces on Africell billboards do not look fake in the usual fake-model-y-grin way.

*** this despite the fact that when it comes right down to it, notwithstanding what either company will tell you, to the average cellphone user (i.e. one who uses her cellphone to call, and send SMSes (i.e. 95% of cellphone users)) there really is no noticeable difference between the two services.

**** "Yaay Boroom" = "It's Yours"/"You are the owner". Compare this to Africell's slogan: "Jerejef" ("Thank You"). The former thrusting (forcing almost) itself into your lap, the latter simply and modestly acknowledging that you are the reason for its success, and smiling and thanking you for it, and then inviting you out to party.

***** Originally, with Gamcell, you had to register to get a SIM card, filling a form containing your details. Once Africell started treating the SIM card as a completely disposable object, of course, registration went straight out of the window - you could get a SIM card anywhere, anytime, for free even, if you wanted.

****** Deep-pocketed here referring both metaphorically to a high-enough purchasing power to maintain two phones at once, but also literally to the fact that you had to have deep pockets to carry around two phones, unless you wanted to keep them clenched at all times, eventually giving yourself a painful clawed-hand condition.

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