Is Cell C winning the reputation game?

A friend remarked with surprise while watching the Chilean Mine rescue that the people-carrier transporting the miners to the surface didn’t appear to have a Cell C ad on it. I imagine that after spending R160-million in six months, finding new places to advertise must be increasingly difficult.

Cell C has embarked on a massive re-branding strategy, which began with an “embedded” YouTube video of comedian Trevor Noah criticising the company, amongst others. It was later revealed that Noah had been hired to be the spokesman and “Customer Experience Officer” for Cell C, a practise which I called “astroturfing” in an earlier article.

While the campaign has won mixed reviews, controversy has never been very far away, culminating in last week’s ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority that Cell C would have to withdraw its 4GS advertising slogan.

It’s been a fascinating campaign, and one that will be debated for a long time.

But what kind of impact has that R160-million advertising campaign made on potential consumers?

To answer that question, I asked BrandsEye, a sophisticated Online Reputation Management (ORM) Tool to run a measure on Cell C which would provide an illustration for my talk which I have titled “Why almost everything you think you know about branding is wrong”.

BrandsEye complied and delivered a measure which covered the period October 7 to October 11.

These are some of the highlights of the report:

  1. During this time the Cell C conversation had a reach of 1.8-million people at an equivalent advertising value of approximately R400 000. Most of this conversation originated from people classified as consumers.
  2. Traffic to complaints sites such as Hello Peter is greater than the average for South African brands, which indicates that consumers believe this a better bet than “Telling Trevor” at the official customer site.
  3. There is a negativity evident online, and the language used including words such as “lying” have indicated that people have been offended.
  4. The conversation has become fragmented. 338 domains have mentioned Cell C only once, which could indicate that interest is waning.

I do know that everyone is not online and there are maybe other conversations happening elsewhere, however the results strike me as being pretty significant.

Change in belief happens when first attitudes are unfrozen — people become receptive — then a cognitive restructuring occurs where new beliefs are offered and accepted, and finally accepted and refrozen.

I suggested in a previous article that there was still time for Cell C and their agency to revisit their approach and turn this around. The story here is that, as interest wanes, the associations attached to the brand will have refrozen in people’s minds. These perceptions become the brand and the difficulty of unfreezing and replacing them with new, different associations will have increased massively.

What can we learn from all of this?

  1. The stuff that happens online is in the public domain. Do you know what your customers are saying about you? Do you know what they are saying about your competition?
  2. Online reputation monitoring is like eavesdropping. You hear what people are saying to each other, not in artificial environments, nor answering leading questionnaires. It’s far more candid.
  3. Focus on delivery and the customer experience. That’s where the brand is built.
  4. Engage with your customers honestly and openly, they will then tell your story for you.
  5. Take customers on a journey with you, involve them in building your brand. The brand is what’s in their heads anyway.

The brand is simply the feeling that you get in your gut when you think of product of service. Do I like it? Do I trust the brand? Ask yourself what you think of when Cell C is mentioned. Do you think genuine, customer focused? Do you think “technologically advanced”? Are you sure they can be trusted? In the middle of spending a whole heap of cash, I know that I would wish for these feelings in my customers.

Brands, take this as a wake up call. The way you build your reputation has changed.


  1. I have sent the BrandsEye report to CEO Lars Reichelt for his information – and for free.
  2. Ogilvy PR said that they had research that showed that Cell C was winning hearts and minds – I have not received that report but would love to see it.



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