Thebe Ikalafeng.
Thebe Ikalafeng.

The medium isn’t the message

By Thebe Ikalafeng Time of article published Jun 9, 2013

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There is no doubt that the official opposition party, the DA, is intent on wresting votes and the leadership of the economic hub of South Africa, Gauteng, from the ANC.

Buoyed by the momentum of the past two elections, in which it increased its share of the nearly 25 million votes from 12.4 percent to 17 percent, this week the DA upped the ante by launching a novel airtime voucher branding campaign and deciding to sponsor the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa) to the tune of R1 million to fight government plans to implement e-tolling in Gauteng.

As should be expected, the ANC, in a spirited defence of its 66 percent mandate, refused to take either move lying down, branding the DA actions as electioneering.

Of course they are. The battle for 2014 is indeed under way, and the DA has fired the first salvoes – with creativity.

Blue Label Telecoms, the distributor of the airtime vouchers, which claims to have offered the opportunity to all political parties, with the DA grabbing it, capitulated under the ruling party’s criticism and apologised to MTN for “creating the perception” that the campaign was sanctioned by the cellphone operator, which had faced undue criticism.

This week’s events brought to the fore two fundamental questions: what are the limits of creativity? And what is par for the course for corporate South Africa in political branding and campaigns?

It’s clear why the DA took the opportunity.

The cluttered traditional media doesn’t cut it any more in the R40 billion advertising market and the battle for the attention of an increasingly mobile, discerning and politically disinterested target market.

A recent TNS Mobile survey indicated that cellphones are the technology devices owned by most South Africans; more people have a smartphone than the total combined ownership of laptops and desktop PCs.

At least 89 percent of homes are using a cellphone, of which 82 percent are on prepaid. The cellphone has become the most important piece of technology – and medium – in South Africans’ lives.

Recent studies by World Wide Worx show that the most popular cellphone banking transaction is the purchase of airtime, with 74 percent of customers using the platform for this purpose. The second most popular banking transaction is the transfer of airtime, with 69 percent of rural users and 51 percent of urban users using their phone to this end.

Consequently, the mobile medium is no longer just a channel for people to reach each other, but for marketers to reach them. It is an effective medium that delivered victory for an upstart called Barack Obama in the US in 2008 and won a re-election for him last year. It is also the battleground for South Africa 2014.

There is no doubt the battle next year is going to be the fiercest yet, in an increasingly young, impatient and unemployed nation, where according to Stats SA, 58.5 percent of people are under the age of 34, with a non-existent or fading memory of the Struggle.

For this generation, everything – the present and the future – is mobile, a view confirmed by a Generation Next survey which found that the coolest brand is BlackBerry and the coolest bank is FNB. FNB no doubt made it to the top of the list for its leadership in mobile banking, and particularly for facilitating ownership of iPads and Samsung tablets for those who sign up as customers.

Like Blue Label Telecoms, which is responsible for printing and distributing airtime vouchers on behalf of MTN, Vodacom and Cell C, FNB has felt the wrath of the ANC for a perception that it has dabbled in politics, and it stopped the initiatives that created this view and issued an apology.

But there’s a distinct difference between the two scenarios.

Both are similar in that their ultimate aim was to influence the bottom lines of the companies involved.

In the case of FNB, it was misguided to give young customers a channel to vent.

The bank clearly veered away from its core offering and was engaging in the kind of social discourse best reserved for civil society and political parties. In the Blue Label Telecoms case, the ANC may not have put its reaction within context.

But in reality, it realised retrospectively that the DA had bettered it strategically in reaching 2.5 million voters using a quick and relatively inexpensive and effective form of media (assuming the targets bothered to read the message while achieving their primary goal, airtime).

Irrespective, the spirited reaction created much more value for the DA because of the PR it created, rendering the Blue Label Telecoms cancellation ineffective and multiplying the DA’s return on its investment.

But airtime vouchers, like flight, bus, parking and movie tickets, for example, are a novel medium that marketers have been using to reach increasingly elusive but mobile targets.

At face value, it seems preposterous to accuse Blue Label Telecoms (or MTN, Vodacom and Cell C by association) of supporting the opposition (or the ANC, had it chosen to use the medium). Blue Label Telecoms is a brand, and by definition a brand creates boundaries of identification and association, and similarly attracts like-minded people – or those who aspire to be associated with it.

In the craft of building brands, it is often said that perception is everything.

In politics, there is no doubt that perception is everything, especially to a fragile nation with a population whose political knowledge and maturity is just coming of age.

In branding it’s often difficult to make the distinction between the medium and the message.

Thus, in mature political markets, often there is an express specification that the political message is distinct from the medium. The role of the media, the ultimate winner in this debacle, is as a conduit of the message.

However, as brands with defined constituencies, corporations can be perceived to endorse a point of view merely by doing what is legitimately their business.

As the election battle heats up, parties will be sharpening their persuasive skills and responding with creativity, using either traditional tactics or veiled strategies, such as sponsorship of Outa.

As a nation, we should not condone any party that threatens or sacrifices the hard-earned democratic right of freedom of expression, association, choice and channel enshrined in the constitution. 

- Ikalafeng is founder of Brand Africa and Brand Leadership.

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