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.

A little public Expo-sure

I often try to be engaging when faced with people ‘selling’ things. I am probably the person the Jehovah’s Witnesses wish they never meet when the knock on doors. I would have them in a long conversation, lasting perhaps hours, as I explored as many aspects of their activities. We’d need to get to know each other better, of course, so staying for tea and maybe a spot of lunch would be natural. So, when I visited Expo Jamaica yesterday afternoon.

Entrance to National Arena, with food court to the side

I started my buttering up before I went in. I reached the entrance gate and a man said “Where you band?” I told him I didn’t have one and he pointed me to a LIME van where I would spend J$600 to get my entrance wristband. A man from Jampro was also trying to help me, but then went totally into a trance. He was bitten by the ‘I must pay attention to this dignitary getting out of his car and ignore the person I was talking to’ bug. Once he’d flounced off and smoothed the three yard walk of Minister Pickersgill to the side gate, I tried to engage him again. “You were saying?” He’s lost the plot completely. I grinned and shook my head. Oh, what a little deference does to your life. I had my mission ahead. The ‘band’ man greeted me again, and told me “Good morning, again.” It was nearly 12.30pm, but I was glad for his attentiveness.

I was not surprised that I started chatting up all the vendors. I was probing, gently. First, I met all the ladies manning–is that an oxymoron?–the tables in the ‘hospitality village’, where hotels and tourist activities were being touted. I’m also a sucker for swag. Well, the lady from Mystic Mountain had a snazzy coffee mug that caught my eye. I told her, honestly, that I keep trying to take my daughter to the play park, as she says she wants to go, but each time she prefers to stay put. I was in Ocho Rios the day before and again, she’d opted to stay home hunkered down with her Ma. Admittedly, when I got home from Ochi and my little stop for fruit in Port Maria, my daughter was screaming her head off with two classmate in the pool and a soggy puppy was chasing a football the girls were tossing.

View of ground floor of Arena hall, crammed with booths

Well, the lady from Mystic Mountain tried to get my daughter’s interest by offering a 20 percent discount voucher and suggesting that I just take the child and say “Here we are!” (I later gave my daughter the mug and voucher and told her the story. She smiled.) I toured the other tables and had a few bits of useful information about some of the north coast hotels. A lady from Chukka Cove tempted me with a prize draw and got my info in exchange. I know that solicitous emails may soon be arriving. My daughter’s also interested in going there to ride horses, or so she’s said. I talked quickly to representatives from Bahia Principe, where I’d stayed already and liked, and Iberostar, where some friends always stay when playing golf tournaments near Montego Bay. Both are all-inclusive hotels and good value for couples and children.

I then tried to enter the exhibition hall, but was waylaid by a lady who told me to start upstairs and then come down, and by the way, stop at her company’s booth for a bag to carry the items I was collecting. Like that. Upstairs, I trotted and was ready to look around at an array of mainly commercial stands. but, I then bumped into some friends, and asked them what was worth seeing. “See it all, but there’s more happening downstairs.

Jampro’s lounge, a little quiet, but pleasantly displayed

The flooring booth is nice, though.” I had no interest in flooring, so hugged my friend and wished her a great afternoon. Her husband was with her, and his shirt was soaked, and I wondered what he had bumped into. I would learn later what had happened. I moved on to a booth womanned by Scotiabank, which was on my list as they’d been making a big point of touting on Twitter their presence at the Expo. A nice young lady from Christiana branch told me about a few things that would be helpful and asked me to complete a survey–that’s one of the downsides of such events, but I understand the purpose. She pointed me to a Rasta sitting in the corner, manning a juicer. “Get some green juice!” she told me. I obeyed. The Rasta told me and anyone listening about the minerals we needed in our diets and how his juice, which as a blend of a long list including Irish Moss, flax-seed, seaweed and more was put lead in my pencil and an eraser on it too. I was impressed and sipped the juice, which had a little pique to it, from cayenne that was also included. Fortified, I headed on.

I saw a large crowd of people gathered ahead of me, and suspected that food was on offer. That’s always a pull at these events. The little samples help ward off some boredom and naturally saves some dollars that would otherwise be spent in the food court, which was actually outside the hall. Best Dressed Chicken had a stall in the corner.

Best Dressed Chicken hosting a nice little snackery

I knew that Chef Brian Lumley (of restaurant ‘689’ fame) was making occasional appearances, offering delights such as ‘gourmet hotdogs’. Not so, when I sidled up; two nice little chunks of fried chicken in a tasty sauce. I and the other patrons were in finger-licking mood and smiling after our bitefuls.

Another friend nabbed me as I was in mid-bite and told me to come to visit his stall; he’s into some industrial process. We talked a bit about Saturday’s trip to Ochi, which he’d done very early so that he could come back to supervise his stand. I moved on. I was surprised to see a stand for the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE). The lady at the table knew me, and greeted me with a lovely warm smile. “You want to buy some stocks, right,” she stated boldly. I told her I had no intention of dipping my toes into the stocks of any of the Jamaican companies, but would prefer to just let my pension fund’s decisions work for me. She laughed. I told her I was an economist, so should know the risks. We chatted a little then I asked her to tell me about the JSE. I was being ‘the foreign investor from Hell’, I told her.

Red Stripe giving drink to cool the thirsty patrons

She got a bit flustered but managed to give me some useful tips about the JSE and advice about brokers. The Ministry of Industry and Commerce was there, and a young man wanted to tell me about trade agreements, but also had interesting pamphlets about the logistics hub. He told me about some information seminars being run by the ministry and the Caribbean Maritime Institute and handed me a neat little Frequently Asked Questions sheet about the logistics hub. I asked him if Minister Pickersgill had passed by yet, but he had not. The young man told me that he’d a degree in International Relations and Spanish and that he was getting good opportunities to use his language skills. “Muy bien!” I told him and moved on to look at Jampro’s stand.

LogoStitch, colourful display of what many companies want to showcase their wares–shirts

Well, as a host of this event, their stand was very empty. The lady looked forlorn and spent time checking her phone. I didn’t have the heart to disturb her and continued on my way.

The rest of the booths did not really interest me, so I passed quickly and headed down to the ‘more happening’ place. I’d seen from above that it was a tighter space, made up of narrow paths with names like ‘Rum Road’ and ‘Reggae Crescent’. The punters were milling around all the stands and trying to weave a path. As I headed downstairs, a young man from LIME put his arm around my shoulder–a pretty risky action in Jamaica when you don’t know someone. He asked me if I wanted to take the ‘Value Challenge’. He pinned a huge button on my shirt and told me breathlessly about how I’d get a one-minute call to show how LIME was much better value that the other people–Digicel.

Rainforest Seafoods’ marlin dipped was totally dug out, but tilapia chowder took its place

He pointed me toward one of his female associates. She gave me more information, but I quickly told her to save the spiel because I was a post-paid customer and her offer was not really of much interest. “Well, let’s make the calls, anyway!” she insisted, “Give me the numbers of contacts who have Digicel phones.” What? I told her that I never tried to figure out what carrier my contacts used; that seemed such a waste of time. I guess she knew I was a faux-Jamaican. Didn’t care! People here are well aware of the prefixes that show if you are LIME or Digicel. They are also adept at making a call and hanging up so that they did not have to pay the higher rates (or because they did not have credit to complete the call), and waiting for the called person to call back. Man, I did not have time for that. I remembered my drive to Ochi, the day before, when one of my passengers had gotten a call that was dropped “Why you call and hang up?” I began to understand another silly game that Jamaicans play.

Cabbages, yellow yam, bokchoi. Jamaican staples.

I was impressed at the cost difference from using LIME’s ‘2.99 anytime’ deal, about one-fifth of the Digicel charge, it seems. There’s quite a fued going on between the two companies. I noted inside the hall that Digicel did not have a booth at the Expo. LIME almost had pride of place in the middle of the hall. I had not seen them listed as the principal sponsor, but they were offering free wifi, so I imagine they were well vested in the show.

I ambled around and realised that, as upstairs, food and drink were being big draws. I went to the National Bakery stand, prominent on a corner with an old break cart, jsut for display. “You need to offer the people some bun and cheese!” I suggested to the people manning the stand. A young boy and his mother came up moments later: “He’s looking for bun and cheese,” said the mother. I just looked that the employees. I got some insight into the bakery’s ‘The Bold Ones‘ programme, which aims at finding new entrepreneurs. I also heard about National’s environmental program, trying to use recyclable packaging, using biofuels in their vans. National also use their vehicles for social messaging, including a very vivid campaign against domestic violence. I felt quite positive, but wondered how many companies were trying hard to do more than just make their goods.

I then visited the Jamaica Producers stand, where they were handing out bags of St. Mary’s Chips, pieces of Tortuga rum cake and big cups of Jablum coffee, with syrup. I’d just driven through St. Mary the day before and noted that the chips maker had a factory outlet. I got details about that, for another time. I asked a very energetic young man about the policy of using imported bananas from Dominican Republic and he gave me the official answer in a natural, flowing way. We talked about hurricanes and how the selling of boxes of bananas was a great entrepreneurial opportunity. Apparently, anyone can start doing this, which is now a common sight on Kingston streets. You start off with two free boxes of bananas, after that you buy at wholesale mark down for resale. Some people make a venture of it by on-selling their bananas to others to sell. I did not get an answer about what sort of profit margins were involved. From the vendors seen on the streets, it’s enough to get buy. You get a nice green and yellow apron and it seems more likeable than washing car windscreens.

I wandered around the whole hall, sampling goods as I went and taking in all the colour and the noise.

Repping UWI Cave Hill School of Business

Jamaica is a place where companies love to show off their colours and logos and I was struck visually by the brightness of LogoStitch‘s stand. I really wanted to have a chat there, as I’m fascinated by the branding of clothing that goes on in Jamaica, to a degree that seems much more than in most other countries.

Speaking of branding, I had gone to the Expo wearing a shirt from UWI Cave Hill School of Business. It was a deliberate ploy, in part to see if people would see me or see my shirt. The shirt won by a huge margin. I sound nothing like a Bajan, but had people asking about my accent. That made for a few laughs as I took people by the line and wriggled them along for a while.

Speaking of shorts. Remember the man with the wet shirt? Well, I understood now what had happened. The hall was very hot. Yes, there was air conditioning, but clearly not enough to keep you and all of the thousands with you, bundled together, in a state of coolness. My own shirt was now quite moist, and it showed off the effectiveness of my antiperspirants. I was not dripping wet, but I was in need of fresh air.

I took a look outside at the farmers market, where cabbages, yams, peppers, carrots, bananas, mangoes, bees, honey, and more were on display. That was a great change, and I a nice stroll around there, regretting that I had not brought a shopping bag.

Window washing is an option if you don’t want to sell bananas

Rainforest Seafoods were whipping up some tasty smoked marlin dip their chef told me, as I passed him in one of the corridors. I had to try that. But, when I reached the stand, the bowl was cleaned out. He came by and gave me a cup of tilapia chowder and I was impressed. Tasty and a little peppery. We talked about conch, which is my wife’s national dish, and we will have to get some recipes exchanged.

Wysinco were doing their usual hydration effort, ‘selling’ bottles of WATA and CranWATA for Wysinco dollars.

I browsed around for a little while longer, and realised that I had spent nearly three hours being well entertained and informed.

Face painting was a bonus, for the few children who visited

As I was heading out, I stumbled across the Kremi stand, where cups of ice cream were on offer to adults; children could get cones. That little piece of discrimination didn’t please me. I love cones 🙂 I had a bag full of leaflets and a few pencils and pens (which I usually hand off to kids when I can).

As I headed out, I met a group of Jampro staff, showing off their corporate logo, but…They were wearing aquamarine and yellow shirts. What? Those are the colours of The Bahamas. I pointed this out to one of the lady. Oops! Why on Earth would you lose sight of your national colours at a major event to promote national products? Why not a variation, as always, on the black, gold and green? Note to Jampro: KISS.

Jampro committee representatives. If I had not asked, I would have assumed this was a Bahamian delegation. A fail!

I wont let that detract from what seemed like a well-organised set up. Today’s papers are full of reports that suggest it was a success. Visitors exceeded the average 12,000-15,000 mark. The Jamaica Manufacturers Association and the Jamaica Exporters Association, the event organisers, are pleased. Five hundred buyers from 27 countries. Plenty of happy Jamaicans, too.