Noah-gate: Lessons learned from Cell C’s controversial ad campaign

There has already been reams written about the new Cell C campaign, including a whole raft of my own thoughts on the campaign. I wanted to step back and pull it all together after the ad campaign that launched and to look at what lessons can be learned from this whole saga.

If you’ve missed it all, then let me recap. South Africa’s third mobile network operator, Cell C, embarked on a new marketing campaign by creating a fairytale story about how Mr. Lars Reichelt, CEO of Cell C, was so distressed about a comedy skit uploaded on YouTube by comedian Trevor Noah that within days he appointed him as the new Customer Experience Officer, built a website, changed the logo and launched a massive media campaign.

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I was initially impressed at the honesty within the campaign – they called “a spade a spade” and then announcing plans to sort out the issues. Subsequently, I was very unimpressed to find out that the campaign was a PR exercise. It totally destroyed my initial judgment on its honesty. After some heated exchanges across the blogosphere, Cell C’s CEO commented that we should all wait and see how things are going to change. And so we wait.

Meanwhile, this is a pulling together of my thoughts:

    1. The media landscape has changed. Customers are connected and vocal. Jay Rosen calls them the “Former Audience” because they have the power to generate as well as consume content. They are active participants in the branding process.
    2. I don’t think that the internet is a channel. The internet changed marketing because it changed how people behave, how they find stuff out, how they interact with each other, how they form opinions.
    3. The first step in new marketing is listening. Listening to what the customers are saying and responding with solutions that add to their experience, as well as with honesty and in an attempt to build relationships based on trust.
    4. The second step is to build an experience for your customer, an experience that they will value and tell their friends about, in other words, build brand fans.
    5. The principle underlying marketing in an “always on/always connected” world is that the customers have control. This could be described as a democratisation of marketing, because in this world your communication is a discussion and not a lecture. Brands can no longer tell customers what they should believe and with enough media spend, shout at them until they believe.
    6. New marketing is really about preparing the environment for the idea (which is what a brand is) to spread. Just like a farmer prepares the field creating the right environment for the crops to grow, the marketer must nurture the brand in a partnership with its fans.

With these thoughts in mind, how has Cell C done?

If you are going to poke the sleeping bear with a pointed stick you had better have a well thought out plan, because it may wake up. The core of this relates to the customer’s experience.

    • Does Cell C have a demonstrably better network than either Vodacom or MTN?
    • Does Cell C have demonstrably better customer service?
    • If not, then they have set themselves up for a very bloody nose?
    • If you want to have a relationship with your customers, the foundation of that relationship is trust. So is it a good idea to try pulling a stunt and spinning a yarn? Is it a good idea to pretend that a new independent customer service system had been set up? And why would I want to “tell Trevor” instead of Cell C?


    • You don’t try to hoodwink your customer, even if you think its funny. Don’t make a fool of him, especially if your intention is to make him a hero.
    • Once you start a relationship with subterfuge it taints the rest of the relationship.
    • Customer service is a company culture thing. Pretending to outsource customer service to a comedian with no record as a consumer champion is bizarre.
    • Is appointing a comedian as your customer experience officer just a message to tell everyone that your customer service is a joke.
    • Cell C has launched a new logo – but their TV ads still carry the old logo, that is just sloppy, and a message in itself.

What I would suggest:

    • Cell C gets its network and outlets working, and makes sure that the customers are getting a superior experience.
    • Your customers don’t care how good you say you are, they care about their cell phone service.
    • Develop the tools to let your customers tell the rest of us about it. Because they are going to do it anyway.
    • Then go on and invite the rest of us in to join the conversation, using all media at our disposal.

I am reminded of an article I read in the Huffington Post called “The dark side of vitaminwater.”
It reveals that Coke’s legal team is defending a consumer protection lawsuit claiming that Coke has misled its customers into believing that vitamin water is healthy, with the argument that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitamin water was a healthy beverage.” What twisted logic! Is Cell C under the illusion that they can treat their customers the same way and follow the same kind of strategy and employ the same kind of defence if they get called out.

The fairytale is just a fairytale and we now know that. But there is a very positive element. The CEO of Cell C himself has commented personally (we presume) on some of the blogs. Is this an indication that Cell C is indeed committed to engagement and is taking the opinions of the community into account? Mr Reichelt, I will, as you suggested in your comment on my story, “wait and see”, because I would love you to be successful. South Africa desperately needs mobile operators that deliver quality because right now, as Trevor Noah’s original YouTube stated, all our service operators suck.

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