Take your marks…Digicel puts on its knuckledusters and lands a hit on LIME’s head at Champs

Telecommunications are not everything, but they are an increasingly important part of modern life. Access to the Internet and availability of celluar telephone services have created opportunities for billions of people worldwide, even though they may still lack many of the basics of a decent life. So, it’s not odd anymore to find a remote village, that may have no drinking water, poor roads, poor sanitation, but excellent cellular services that can permit connections to places that have those things in abundance. Modern telecommunications have not made the world equal, but they have done a lot to even out the ‘playing field’.

So, it’s no great surprise, either, that those who play on that pitch will be like many who have to compete, and play to win.

Jamaica, and the Caribbean in general, are not known for wars, but they are also not known as a region of pure peace and love, especially over the small but important markets that people’s incomes create.

We have three telecoms giants. First, LIME (formerly Cable and Wireless; long-established and often representative of the region’s coloinal past; often reviled, but working on changing that), who operated mainly in land-line and cellular telephones. Second, we have Digicel (upstart from Ireland, bringing in fresh ideas and aggressive competition, befitting of a nation that loves to play Hurling and people well used to being hit on the head with a shellilagh),Hurling operating largely in the area of cellular telephones. Third, we have Flow (Columbus Communication; owned by Jamaican-Chinese billionaire Michael Lee-Chin, and incorporated in Barbados), operating mainly in cable-based services that cover Internet, television, and telephone offerings.

They’ve been duking it out for a good few years now, since the various national markets moved to telecoms deregulation in the late 1990s/early 2000s. So, the nice monopoly position that Cable and Wireless used to have across the region was quickly whittled away. The competition brought many benefits in the form of readier access to mobile phones, wider service access, and competitive pricing.

To me, it’s not really important who had the lead in any one area, as the technology lends itself to seepage, in that, each provider can creep over into another’s area of apparent superiority. However, the lines of demarcation started to disappear recently in notable ways. First, Digicel moved into the area of television content by acquiring a regional sports broadcaster, SportsMax. Then, LIME announced that it would merge with Flow, which was a move of such disruptive nature that it was hard to see what the new merged entity would not have control over. Digicel, understandably, did more than flinch. It shook furiously and started to bare its teeth.

There’s a lot of bluster that comes out in the face of competition, so I’m not going to touch the verbal posturing that has been going on for a few months, with Digicel crying foul, and LIME/Flow saying that they played the ball cleanly, and it’s a ‘man’s game’, so ‘suck it up’. But, like with all competitive sport, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

We’ve seen the ‘marshalling of troops’ going on in Jamaica with the recruitment of ‘soldiers’ who are well-known in the arenas of sport and entertainment, two massive markets in terms of popular interest and passion.

So, for simplicity sake, we have Usain Bolt, near demi-god in the world of athletics, and a long-time Digicel ambassador. Add to that, Shelly-Anne Fraser-Pryce, his female near-counterpart. Add to that new potental mega-star, Tessanne Chin. Similar, ‘capturing’ of stars goes on across the region.

LIME, by contrast, recruited singer Konshens, and all-round super-talent and recently former beauty queen, Dr. Sara Lawrence (a former Miss Jamaica and also a gynacologist).

How much of this capturing of talent and brand association matters can be a subject to debate. But, it goes on, and like many things, if you don’t participate, you miust lose.

LIME and Digicel make themselves popular by also being the main sponsors of a range of cultural, sporting, and popular events. Such associations are often seen as win-win investments, with brand association with goodwill being very important in countries where funding is always a problem. Digicel is well associated with West Indies cricket–a twisted fork, if ever there was one.

In that vein, however, LIME seemed to have put a lock on one of the most important pieces of Jamaica’s heart by being a main sponsor (along with Grace Kennedy) of the ISSA (Inter-Secondary Schools Association) annual boys and girls high school athletics championships (‘Champs’). Champs is not for chumps, and its clear position as the best conveyor belt in the world of some of the most spectacular young track and field talent is clear.

LIME is Champs. But, wait. In what is not normally a contact sport, some serious fouls were being committed. During the latest edition of Champs, just ended last night, Digicel decided to put on knuckledusters and go after LIME.

First, Digicel did a little being of naughty guerrilla marketing, associating its name with the event in a way that made it seem that they were really at its heart. Take a look at one of the images on its Instagram page.

This was not so clear, in that, it mixed nice snappy pictures of Champs alongside well-curated images of school athletes along with a brand message. However, ISSA smelled the rat and put out a warning against ‘unauthorized’ use of images from Champs. Interestingly, some of the potentially offending images now seem to have been pulled from the Internet. But, the story is not straight-forward, given that Digicel-affiliated media outlets (Loop and SportsMax) were not given official accreditation by ISSA for Champs.

But, Digicel could seem like good citizens by listening to ISSA–“Yes, sir, you’re right…It won’t happen again.” But, fingers were crossed behind the back. Digicel had bigger fish on the fire. One major star was living up to his billing. Young Michael O’Hara was winning, and winning well, and doing it in multiple events, and had the seal already of Champs sponsors, Grace Kennedy, who had given him a scholarship.

But, the boy was no one’s brand ambassador. Yet. As he passed the finishing line in the 200 meters final for class 1 boys that changed in a flash.

Michael O'Hara: chest for sale
Michael O’Hara: chest for sale

He donned a new vest with the words ‘Be extraordinary’, a Digicel brand message, right there in front of all the viewers in the stadium, but more importnatly in front of all the television eyes in Jamaica. It was also on any screen that was watching live online, and it would stay on any footage of the end of that race.

Digicel formally ‘announced’ their new brand ambassador in a series of adverts soon after. Timing is everything, but “Just win, baby!”

Hail, Michael!
Hail, Michael! Next in line to follow Bolt?

How O’Hara was not snared by LIME will be a story to follow in coming days. The initial reports are that he refused their offers. Now, I want to see if ISSA have sanctions ready for him for the manner of his unveiling or the manner in which he was ‘tempted’.

The issue of whether the proposed merger of LIME/Flow gets the go-ahead is being guided throuigh each of the national jurisdictions. So far, it’s getting nods of approval. But, it’s clear that a serious fight is on. How bloody will it be? It’s hard to say. Will the consumers really win in terms of service and competitition? I’m inclined to say yes. Will everyone be happy and get into a few verses of Kumbayaa? You must be mad.

LIME have pumped and are pumping millions of dollars into Champs and events leading up to it (as they are doing with a range of sports). That’s not a trivial investment, for them as a brand, but also for those who benefit from it. It’s not rocket science to figure that they cannot afford, literally, for that to be undone by either advertising theatrics, confused messages, or other media coups by a major rival. But, what to do? Take the high ground, and move on, regardless? Look for ways to retaliate? The market if full of fickle folk.