Cell C and Noahgate. Some lessons.

As I drove back from my interview with Ashraf Garda on the radio show Media@SAFM on Sunday I thought about the conversation that I have got involved in regarding the new Cell C campaign.

The whole thing started with a video posted on YouTube on Wednesday 28th July. The video was supposed to be a segment of comedian Trevor Noah’s comedy show in which he ripped into all the South African cell phone networks.

The fairy tale was that the Cell C CEO was so concerned on seeing the video that he placed a full page ad of apology to Trevor Noah and all of South Africa, promising better service and within a few hours offered Trevor Noah the job as the CEO (Customer Experience Officer) a kind of independent referee on Cell C customer service called telltrevor . In these few hours they also set up a rather large website development.

For good measure Cell C also changed their logo and announced how they were going to change the standard of cell phone connections with a new network.

The only thing is that it’s all a fantasy.

I had been pulled into the controversy firstly by commenting favourably on the Cell C apology, naively as it turns out. You see I had never expected a major marketing company to pull a stunt you would really only expect from “Honest Joe’s Used Cars.”

I was full of praise that at last a South African corporate had understood a little of Social Media strategy – listening and then responding, swiftly and with gravitas to a complaint. Why Cell C’s Full Page apology was a Marketing Masterstroke.

I was really disappointed when I found out from blogger Marc Forrest, Cell C the Joke is on you that it had all been a stunt. I felt it important to respond and did so here Cell C is Astroturfing, What a Joke

This was picked up by Radio Highveld news and Media@SAFM. And Mandy de Waal wrote a really good article with comments on Daily Maverick

This is a pulling together of my thoughts.

  1. The media landscape has changed. Customers are connected and vocal. Dan Gilmour 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. The first step in new marketing is listening. Listening to what the customers are saying and responding with solutions adding to their experience  as well as with honesty and so building relationships based on trust.
  3. The second is building an experience for your customer, an experience that they will value and tell their friends about, in other words build brand fans.
  4. The principle underlying marketing in an always on and 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 not a lecture. Brands can no longer tell customers what they should believe and with enough media spend, shout at them until they believe.
    1. New marketing is really about preparing the environment for the idea (which is what a brand is) to spread. It’s like as 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.

So what has Cell C done wrong?


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


  1. 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.
  2. Once you start a relationship with subterfuge it taints the rest of the relationship.
  3. Customer service is a company culture thing. Pretending to outsource customer service to a comedian with no record as a consumer champion is bizarre.
  4. Is appointing a comedian as your customer experience officer a message to tell everyone that your customer service is a joke.
  5. 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:

  1. Cell C get your network working, your outlets working and make sure that your customers are getting a superior experience.
  2. Your customers don’t care how good you say you are, they care about their cell phone service
  3. Then develope the tools to let your customers tell the rest of us about it. Because they are going to do it anyway.
  4. Then go on and invite the rest of us in to join the conversation, using all media.

I am reminded of an article I read in the Huffington Post yesterday, called The dark side of vitaminwater it reveals that Coke’s legal team, who are defending a consumer protection lawsuit claiming that Coke has misled its customers into believing that vitaminwater 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, follow the same kind of strategy and same kind of defence if they get called out.

The fairy tale is just a fairy tale and we now know that. What we also now know for certain, because Trevor told us, is that the Cell C network is terrible.

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Posted on August 9, 2010 at 1:31 pm by Walter Pike · Permalink
In: Advertising, Customer Service, Marketing, social media · Tagged with: , , , ,
  • http://twitter.com/ADwyer ADwyer

    Great post, enjoyed reading it as I've been following Noahgate, including your changing headlines in Memeburn!

    • http://walterpike.com Walter Pike

      Well I suppose that on the positive side of that – nobody can accuse me of being dogmatic.

      I don't think that all has been said yet.:)

  • http://twitter.com/sarvs Sarveshen Govender

    On the positive side, this makes for a good case study and what not to do. Really enjoyed this post :) it's all the important information in one post. and don't stress, we were all fooled in the beginning but I'm sure you like everyone else also had a small inkling that this was too good to be true.

  • http://donnedwards.openaccess.co.za Donn Edwards

    Lesson #1: Don't LIE to your customers. When they find out they will be very angry.

    Lesson #2: What kind of fool thinks it's OK to trademark the copyright (c) logo? Are you insane or just stupid?

  • http://www.andyhadfield.com Andy Hadfield

    Perhaps it's a little more complicated than that… Some thoughts:

    1. Cell C bought Noah's social graph. Very clever for them, instant penetration, ignoring the “transparency” issues. Maybe not so great for Noah who will end up with a mish mash “fan” base of cell c complainers/advocates and people who actually like him as a comedian.

    2. all this doomsday buzz will fizzle into nothing if they ACTUALLY deliver on their promise. I saw Lars, Cell C CEO commenting on a complaint posted to telltrevor.co.za promising a fix to a solution on Wednesday. That's ballsy, and if they deliver, project will succeed.

    3. The bigger debate I reckon is around their main brand web property (cellc.co.za) and their engagement hub (telltrevor.co.za). Jury's out. Either it was a brilliant call to link the two so closely (design is identical) or a lesson will be learnt on keeping dirty laundry as far away from your main brand as possible.

    4. Regarding all the sales/product info on telltrevor.co.za. Something people just aren't seeing in this space, is that for big business to SERIOUSLY adopt social media (and I mean beyond the pitter patter playing they're doing at the moment), it's going to have to be linked to ROI – or accepted as a “cost of servicing”. Social media is a pretty expensive cost of servicing – you can't just throw a call centre at it. Therefore… attempts to link it to sales are admirable. Positive experience on telltrevor.co.za leads to content exploration of offers leads to customer acquisition.

    we can go on and on about transparency and authenticity till the cows come home – if they've opened a channel for customers to talk to them, and they talk back and fix the BASE problem – they'll succeed.

    • http://walterpike.com Walter Pike

      Thanks Andy

      A couple of responses:

      Buying Trevor Noah's social graph is like buying a list – they follow him because he is a comedian not because he is going to sort out Cell C Customer Care. Buying a list is thinking that its still about quantity not quality and that its OK to Spam people until they believe. The trouble is that they don't – they believe their experiences and the experiences of their friends.

      Trevor Noah's social graph is irrelevant, like mine would be irrelevant in the world of comedy – no-one cares whether I think that Trevor is funny, they care about the stuff I have a proper opinion on.

      Sales and customer engagement together – I don't care – they aren't separate things they are part of the same brand experience.

      The core issue that I am focusing on is the subterfuge – why did they have have to set up Trevor Noah with a fairy tale? Whats wrong just promise to deliver and deliver – create a hero in their own business?

      Maybe this is a meatball sundae – confused thinking – trying to bolt on social media onto an inherently non social business or bolt on social and digital into traditional thinking.

      Actually its not about social at all its about people – the difference is that people are connected and can talk to each other they will say if they are offended by the fairy tale or if they like it they will tell their friends

      See you on the social media panel on Friday at Tech4Africa – lets continue the debate then.

      • http://www.andyhadfield.com Andy Hadfield

        1. on the subterfuge – no arguments. silly move. Whether it has massive influence outside of our tech echo chamber can be debated.

        2. on the list buying – yes and no. Silly to buy a social graph and spam. But clever to get that social graph owner to endorse and pass on. This has been done for many years with celebrity endorsements, athlete endorsements etc. Wear Reebok because X loves it. Now that it's happening in social media, admittedly with a bunch of noise surrounding it, I wouldn't throw it away too quickly.

        3. sales and engagement. I do care. But happy to be swayed. Not sure that people coming onto that site just to buy should be distracted into the noise world of dirty laundry service issues.

        4. and the social – people thing. Well, I know we agree on this one. Social Media IS about people. And people have issues, emotions, baggages, subtle intentions. A lot of the time, that human baggage is far removed from actual purchase decisions.

        This is going to dominate the panel. :) Mr Moderator will have to steer us nicely.

        • http://walterpike.com Walter Pike

          Andy – Lol – I will do my best :)

          The endorsement thing – been done for years – I contend that it is old marketing thinking – new marketing finds fans with influence and activates them – giving them the tools to pass on “the word”

          Yes of course the echo is in our little internet/geek/tech echo chamber (which is still tiny) – its also out on radio – sure to be picked up in print (consistent with my contention that social media is about people – not channels – and wont replace “old” media – just the way it is used)

          Finally – This echo chamber is growing at an enormous pace – Its still early – and Cell C has a massive chance to learn without too much damage – Two years down the track – there would have been HUGE pain.

          Keep well

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