Uche Ofodile recalls when she first arrived in Ghana in July 2009 to take up her position as Head of Strategy and Brand at Vodafone. The global telecommunications giant had just taken over previously state-owned provider, Ghana Telecom and was launched amid a blitz of publicity.
“I remember being overwhelmed by how much red [Vodafone’s brand colour] there was in the country,” she says. “And that was great. I thought, “my work is done!” But when we sat down and began to really look at the KPIs, we realised that there was a lot to be done.”
That work was mostly on something that Uche is keen on – the relationship between the brand and the customer.
“We were recognisable. People knew what the colour meant and what the logo was but there wasn’t a real relationship with the customer, something that I am really big on. The brand and the customer need to have a relationship otherwise there is no loyalty. So the challenge was how to move this high level of awareness to something deeper and more meaningful. And in the three and a half years since, I think we’ve done a fantastic job. We find now a great respect and admiration for the Vodafone brand from customers both on and off our network.”
A Political Science Major with a Diploma in Strategic Marketing from Columbia Business School, she had worked in America before finally succumbing to the lure of the call from home and deciding to move to Nigeria to join Econet Wireless (now Airtel). This was her first billing and one which will cement her interest in the telecoms business.
“Because it was a new industry, it was a great learning experience. It meant that you really got your hands dirty. Even when you worked in marketing, you still had to work across the business. So you had to understand the technology side; the finance side of things; the sales side of things – you really had to be totally embedded in the business and I’ll say that was where I got my training and my love for the telecom business.”
Stints at MTS First Wireless – a CDMA telecom company where she was CMO – and the beverage division of PZ Cussons, all in Nigeria, followed. The upshot of these various experiences is that when she stepped off the plane in Accra in July 2009, she was ready for the challenge of helping Vodafone deliver the impact both on customers’ lives and its own balance sheets.
“I hadn’t lived in Nigeria prior to working there so I was really coming into a new culture and new way of working; a new industry too and that taught me something that I personally think is crucial to effective leadership – being able to adapt quickly. One could easily be overwhelmed by this new experience but if you are able to adapt and make the right decisions that are appropriate for that market, you can achieve the success that you want.”
In the notoriously competitive Ghanaian telecommunications sector, that was a lesson that was going to come in handy.
With help from the insight team at Vodafone and what one imagines was some pretty exhaustive research, Vodafone’s transformation would be hinged on delivering what the consumers want.
“I think because we had those conversations in the first year – and this is back office stuff not visible in the marketplace – this led people to think we were just carrying on with business as usual. But there was a lot of work going on, a lot of preparation. And in 2010 when our new CEO took over, he basically opened Pandora ’s Box, if you will, and people began to see what we had been doing.”
From the box came the products and offers which, many have observed, changed the conversation in terms of what customers expect from their service providers. From cold impersonal numbers, Vodafone chose to focus on value to the customer, whose major concern is how much use they can get from the credit they purchase. This thinking is what has led to the popular value bundle offers from Vodafone. Customers now feel empowered to do whatever they want to. The result is that customers no longer feel rushed while on the phone. A simple, perhaps indefinable advantage but extremely significant.
And for Uche Ofodile, you can’t put a price on that.
“I love it when customers say to me, “I’m on supreme value and I’ve put my mum, my sister and brother and we can talk about everything that we need to”. Where as in the past those conversations would have been very short because customers couldn’t stop worrying over how their credit was running. We’ve removed all that discomfort from the customer and we’ve said, get on with your lives. Communications should be easy and free flowing and not some strategic initiative.”
All of this feeds into positioning the Vodafone brand, something that exercised the minds of the team; what products to introduce, what corporate social responsibility projects to back and the overall brand and customer experience.
Here again, Uche would rely on her experiences from before. Having worked for a non-profit organisation back in the states, she had learned to make the most of her budgets.
“It forced me to understand how to do a lot with very little,” she says of her time in the non-profit sector. “Companies like that don’t have huge budgets but you still have to deliver on bold ideas so that forces you to be creative. And I have carried those lessons with me all this time.”
This has defined her philosophy of not throwing a little at everything, rather concentrating on focused, high impact campaigns. This, she sums up as “fewer, bigger, bolder.”
For impact, you’d also have to look at the phenomenal innovation that is Vodafone Healthline, a TV show that brings education on health issues to the people and that also takes on some of the difficult cases that vulnerable Ghanaians face.
“I think that is one of the big bets that we took. We wanted to be in the communities, having an impact on people’s lives. And we identified that health was something that everyone was affected by. What we did not want to do was just write cheques and go away. We wanted to do something that would give back in a way that was sustainable for a long time.”
Vodafone Healthline has gone on to become something of a feature in the Ghanaian social fabric, exerting a soft influence that other providers would kill for. When people come up to Uche, as they do, and say to her “I am on your network because I love what you people are doing with the money I spend on you,” one imagines that the bet has paid off in a most spectacular way.
Of course, the numbers are also important and with Vodafone at the second spot among six (up from fourth, three years ago) and solvent, they are kind as well.
Music to the ears of uber-competitive Uche Ofodile, whose whole ethos revolves around doing different things to unexpected effect.
“I think I am very proud of that, us becoming number two. Seeing the work that we have put in (the whole team) it is gratifying to see that manifesting in the way that it has.”
With both hard and soft indicators aligning so favourably, has the challenge-seeking Uche Ofodile finally achieved fulfillment?
“I enjoy telecoms a lot and I have been doing that for the last few years. But Africa as a whole offers a lot of opportunity and there are new industries coming up all the time so I don’t know if something else will challenge me in the future but for now I am very happy helping to drive growth in the telecoms sector and so for now, that’s what I will do and continue to push till hopefully, we get to the number one position.”