On the campaign trail

Read time 9min 50sec
Charles Molapisi, MTN
Charles Molapisi, MTN

Back in the early 1980s, post Apple going public, Steve Jobs found himself marginalised and without management responsibility within the company he had co-founded. In search of a new home at Apple, he took over the Macintosh project, a team developing a more cost-effective, market-challenging PC. Determined to unify his new employees and give them an identity that suited the product and aligned with his objectives, he branded them 'pirates'. His reasoning was that a pirate isn't afraid of change, can move quickly, is brave, takes risks and challenges authority.

The ethos stuck, and, apparently, in 1983, when the team moved to new premises, they even created their own skull and crossbones flag with the rainbow Apple logo over one eye, to hoist outside. Following the success of the Macintosh, the challenger mentality, exemplified by pirates, also spread throughout the company as Jobs' influence regained traction.

Jobs was somewhat of a master when it came to mixing the more creative side with technology, obsessing over what others might see as fripperies like fonts, GUIs, user experience and even adverts.

Technology has obviously moved on since the early days of Apple. IT has become democratised, users have become more knowledgeable and the once lofty position of technical superiority and credibility that the IT department occupied is now under fire. In an age of digital transformation and 4IR thinking, it's time for IT to come out of the stereotypical cold, dark basement and tell the world how important its role is to this journey.

“It's about finding the common themes and making it personable and relatable.”

Sandro Bucchianeri, Absa

While the use of branding and marketing activities by South African IT departments isn't particularly prevalent at the moment, there are many use cases that could increase its adoption.

In practice

AVBOB is one such company where the IT function has developed its own brand and logo to spread the message about its work and role in digitally transforming the organisation.

“We've built the One AVBOB Connect brand within AVBOB, with its own logo,” says Helen Constantinides, the company's CIO. “Everything we do and everything we communicate from ICT includes the brand logo. We’re elevating ICT and what it stands for within the business.”

For each document, such as a business analysis or board report or slide deck, the logo is added next to AVBOB’s. “Whenever we have articles in our internal magazine, it’s about having the One AVBOB Connect brand in there. When we deliver projects, part of our delivery includes communication and training plans, and they all include the logo.

“We’re creating such a cultural shift with digital transformation within the group that I want IT to have an identity and be remembered as part of that. Digital transformation wouldn’t happen without IT enabling and executing it. This is a big step in doing something transformative for the business and I want IT to be acknowledged,” she says.

Charles Molapisi, MTN Group’s chief technology and information officer, has also overseen the creation of a brand - Oxygen - within his organisation. For him, the story is somewhat different.

Molapisi took up his current role last year, but prior to that, he’d been the CEO of MTN Zambia, and CIO of MTN Nigeria before that.

During his time in Nigeria, he realised how difficult it was to move work within an organisation, as he found the flow of processes between departments ‘gated’.

“A successful executive is one who can move through the gates faster than the others. If you get approvals first, or convince Exco first, you tend to have a better chance of success. For a CIO who supports internal stakeholders to be successful, they need to break the gates, communicate more and know their stakeholders,” he says.

During his time in Zambia, Molapisi saw how IT employees struggled to communicate and sell the benefits of their work, especially when they presented at Exco, where they were always the last to speak.

Throughout his various posts, he says there was also a general lack of user awareness of everything the IT function actually did, beyond handing out laptops.

“I thought, let’s take everything, stitch it together and brand it; the team constructed a very powerful framework, which comprises 26 interdependent, individually branded programmes, but they all fall under the master brand of Oxygen. We were already doing all this work, but never branding it.”

Within the broader programme exists the Oxygen level index to enable the measurement through different parameters of progressions over a five-year period. Each of the different operating companies within the MTN Group applies as many of the programmes as appropriate.

“You’re able to look at the high-level index for each country, then drill down to see the index for multiple programmes; that way, investments can be justified. For example, I can tell the board, if you give me $2 billion, I will move the Oxygen level index for the group from 37 to 45. I’m not talking in technical terms, I’m talking about building capability and quantifying it. To get to the board, you have to decode and simplify the message.”

The hard yards

A key part of Oxygen’s promotion is stakeholder management, he says. “I met all the stakeholders one-on-one. I sat with the CFO and discovered his view on technology, whether he was a detractor or promoter, then I could put in place relevant interventions. The C -Suite has to see the programme and find their space in it. You appeal to their interests and tell them how it will assist their business focus.”

Having presented to the Exco team and all other department leadership, Molapisi has taken the brand on tour, including multiple forums within MTN, such as regional conferences, and other commercial conferences here and internationally. “I deliver the message at every conference I go to. I’m on a campaign trail to introduce and explain Oxygen. I also work with the CTOs in the markets, and the message is plastered in their office areas too. I’ve used all the possible channels to propagate the message, and the intention was simple: to sell.”

Molapisi has garnered the support of the Group CEO and even produced a video featuring him and other group leaders, who are all able to explain to viewers what Oxygen is. Such widespread understanding and buy-in has helped spread acceptance across the organisation, he adds.

Another example of an IT leader using video as a way to sell their campaign comes from Simon Marland, chief data commercialisation officer at Nedbank. His branding campaign was the result of a demotivated and deflated business intelligence department that he’d just taken charge of.

“About two years ago, the department seemed to lack energy and identity, and to me, attracting and retaining great people was really important. We’d been called Business Intelligence Solutions for over 10 years, and it seemed a bit stale.”

Marland rebranded the department as the 'Central Intelligence Agency' or CIA. “We give every team member what looks like a police badge. People walk around with them and seem proud. When we do communication internally, we do a lot of themed hype around it, for example, 'Agent Ndlovu has just solved a data case'.”

Among the activities were some in-house produced videos, featuring Nedbank's CIA agents dressed in black 'solving a case'. “We've done eight or nine videos and all 'agenty' stuff, just to push the brand and create the identity. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.”

“The branding has been phenomenal in many areas, but it's more about the energy it's brought. And that was the most important thing for me - to have people belong to something, proud that they belong in the CIA, and the energy just creeps up so you get more productivity from the team.”

The last of our examples comes from Absa. Chief security officer Sandro Bucchianeri wanted to reach internal users, but also promote general cyber security awareness among customers and the wider public. “It's about training a security culture; if everyone becomes more security-savvy, it significantly reduces fraud in the wider ecosystem. However, in order to reach the audience, the bestplaced people to do that are the marketing and communications departments. It’s essentially a service I'm procuring from my organisation, because they're the experts.”

Among the activities Bucchianeri has commissioned are posters and mailshots, as well as videos on related topics, such as not divulging too much personal information on social media, for example your house being vacant while you’re on holiday.

When asked why more IT departments aren't drawing on the services of the marketing and communications teams, he says: “It's probably a lack of experience. IT and security people are typically very guarded and want to do everything themselves, without realising that there are experts in the various fields who can assist. Those other departments are there for a reason, and you may well be surprised with the amount of help they can offer, so just ask the question.”

The benefits of such expertise shouldn't be overlooked, he says. “Marketing and communications have been great to help me articulate the message better and get it across. I gave the team an idea of what we were looking to do and they ran away with it, they came back with a few pitches and then we fine-tuned it.

“We went with four-minute videos, and, depending on the medium or placement, we could trim them down. We added dedicated experts to the creative teams so that if there were any questions, there was someone on hand to answer.”

Tips from the top

If we're to expect the rise of branding and marketing-type activities from technical departments, what words of wisdom do our interviewees have?

Know why you're doing the campaign, what you’re trying to achieve and what the desired outcome is, says Bucchianeri, as this helps to ensure support from the right departments.

“It's about finding the common themes and making it relatable,” he says.

Molapisi adds: “Simplify the narrative, crystalise the message, brand it, propagate it and stick to the communication.”

“Make yourself visible as a brand, and don't be shy,” says Constantinides.

And herein lies perhaps the biggest reason that South African organisations haven't communicated and branded IT programmes before. “You’re creating huge expectations in the business. The challenge with overexposing yourself is that if it fails, it does so dismally. If you're going to make the big bets, it had better work,” concludes Molapisi.

This article was originally published in the March 2020 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.

See also