In late 2002, I submitted my final dissertation to my Norwegian/ Kenyan supervisor. I was a Management underground in a public university and this was part of the coursework.
The research was meant to highlight strategies the players in the then-nascent telecom industry could employ to gain and retain market share. The subscribers were only a handful about 700,000 in total and without any available academic research; I had to rely on a newspaper article and foreign studies as my references.
After the recent on and an offline spat between the leader and the challenger, I went back to my library to acquaint myself with the recommendations I had made then. I was surprised at how relevant they have remained. My hypothesis was that there is a large commercially lucrative consumer segment comprising of youth who the players should consider targeting.
About three years ago, Airtel the market challenger had launched a campaign dubbed “mbao ni mob” loosely translating into twenty shillings is a lot. They were making a bundled offering of voice and data at 20bob a day. It was wildly successful with the youth and we know this because Safaricom eventually responded with Blaze.
The other entity to have taken note was Royal Media with their “usitupe mbao” campaign meaning don’t lose it, don’t lose out. I particularly like the one where a guy who lent his friend 20 bob is demanding back 20 million. The exchange between the two of them is quite hilarious. The reason why Royal Media should interest you is that they were not always market leaders in their industry, in fact, they a distant fifth. They should be a classic case study on how to upstage the competition.
Eventually, they turned the tables by hiring some of the best brains in the industry. These professionals thoroughly understood the industry and managed to leapfrog the competition. They were industry insiders, who understood the mechanics, they employed their skills to conceptualize and execute a vicious strategy against the market leaders and won. Of course, the owner backed the strategy with everything within his reach.
The thinly veiled attack by Airtel on Safaricom is uncannily similar to another one between the former Prime Minister and the Deputy President. It is likely to generate more heat than light and that may just the intention, good or bad publicity is publicity none the less. As a market strategist, I am tempted to lecture Airtel on how to execute their marketing and advertising strategies but will restrain myself for now. What I shall do instead is to use the success story that is Royal Media to highlight some vital lessons in strategy.
Attack strategically instead of blatantly; prior to their complete transformation, Royal Media would even jam the signal of their competitor when the said competitor poached their star presenters. However, after seeing the light, they would similarly pull the rug under their competition by sweeping entire newsrooms.
A real tiger pounces upon the weakest prey; identify the weaknesses of your competition and instead of pointing out to them, attack them instead at the weakest point. Royal Media was aware of the weak signal of KTN, the market leader then, in rural areas and therefore invested in strengthening their signal in rural areas sometimes even crossing into neighboring countries.
Seek to endear yourself to the consumer not to antagonize the competition; after Citizen realized that the content on KTN which was large, foreign alienated some viewers, they developed local content that was an instant hit with the masses. It also happened that the local content was cheaper to produce than the procurement of top rated foreign productions.
Hire and retain your staff members ruthlessly ensuring that only the most passionate make the cut; Royal media has only had on MD for the last fifteen years, incidentally, Safaricom has also only had two CEOs since inception. The employees are the real drivers of the business; therefore heavily invest in recruiting and retaining them.
Focus your resources on a market segment within intention to dominate it; before hiring Wachira Waruru as MD, Royal Media has a weekly newspaper known as The Leader. Clearly, it was never going to be a market leader it was quickly retired. The company focused on broadcast media whose operational costs were lower and went on to dominate it.
Build a cult instead of an enterprise; build a culture of ownership amongst consumers so as to turn them into brand ambassadors, with numerous road shows and night outs, Roya Media seems to enjoy cult life following amongst its consumers. Most of their initiatives are not dissimilar to political rallies where personal charisma or charm is the motivation.
Lastly, speak the language of your consumer; the primary language communication for most of Royal Media viewers and listeners is Swahili. Most messages across their different outlets are specifically crafted to appeal to a Swahili speaking audience. When a certain language resonates with your consumer, stick to it lest you lose them.
Innovation is not always about technology, humans are predictable in behavior as individuals and as communities. By understanding how humans interact, make consumer decisions and what motivates them, even a startup can enjoy market leader status.