Matthew Buckland

Little dark spots

2010-08-06 08:00

Every morning as I travel the outrageously beautiful coastal road from Hout Bay to Cape Town city centre there is a little dark spot where my calls drop. I know that spot well, and I’ve adapted by planning my calls around that route so that they end before that little spot. Frustrating is not the word.

South Africans know only too well the problems with call dropping. It seems to have worsened as the cellular operators have got bigger. We get frustrated and hold the cellular providers to such high standards because we know the kind of money they rake in from us, the consumer.

So it was refreshing to see a bit of honesty from the smallest of our mobile service providers, Cell C in the form of a full-page ad placed in various Sunday newspapers, including the country’s biggest in the Sunday Times.

The mobile operator issued a full page apology, addressed to popular comedian Trevor Noah, who had earlier joked about the country’s various cellphone networks on a YouTube clip, including Cell C, for poor service and dropped calls on a popular YouTube clip and in comments on Facebook.

“Dear Trevor Noah,” wrote Cell C CEO Lars Reichelt in the full page advertisement, “I have seen your Facebook page and your video clip about South Africa’s cellular operators, and in particular Cell C.

“Your criticism about spotty coverage, dropped calls and overall lack of delivery is not unfounded. We know how frustrated South Africans are with the cellular industry, which is why we are so very serious about turning things around.”

And yes - this was a marketing stunt. But so what? Hats off to Cell C, because it was clever – almost to the level of the witty Nandos and advertising campaigns that have the country in stitches on a regular basis.

But it’s also refreshing honesty from a corporate too. Companies, governments and human beings don’t often deal in honesty, they deal in spin. No matter how bad a situation, there’s always an upside. We can take the view that “all publicity” is “good publicity” but there was some element of risk involved in the cellular operator in coming out so boldly and admitting to its own shortcomings.

But, importantly, it works towards establishing trust with the consumer, trust that is short-lived between companies and humans in the age of corporate failures such as the Lehman Brothers, Enron crashes and the Fidentia crash here at home.

You also may think it was a bit strange that Cell C directed its letter at popular comedian Trevor Noah who had merely poked a bit of fun at the country’s mobile operators on both You Tube and Facebook.
But it’s not so strange when you consider that Noah has more than 120 000 fans on his Facebook page - and growing. That’s big. That’s quite a bit of influence by one individual, and if that individual is criticising you, you need to respond.

The Cell CEO opened the full-page letter addressed to Noah by referring to the comedian’s criticism on Facebook and You Tube. It’s acknowledgement of the important role these social media platforms are playing in our daily reality. Facebook is big news here. It’s mainstream, in the internet sense of the word anyway.

Research finding after research finding shows that we value advice from peers and family higher than traditional channels of marketing, such as adverts. Social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube  have given sophisticated expression to this, posing an attractive platform for companies.

The authoritative confirms this trend in a 2010 research project, showing 40% of consumers indicated they would more likely trust advice on a brand from their friends or family compared to 5% that trusted advertising and promotional features.

So well done to Cell C on this clever and bold piece of communication. But now let’s see this turn into some action.

- Matthew Buckland is the founder of

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