Published in Mar-Apr 2023
I can never forget the excitement and anticipation I felt before the run-up to purchasing my first mobile connection. The year was 2001. Mobile communication in Pakistan was set to take a turn to truly include everyone. The new entrant had chosen a brand name envisioned to connect to all: Ufone.
My excitement was shared by many people across Pakistan who had been left out of what was (up to that point) the expensive and often, exclusive, if not elusive, mobile telephony. Mobile phone users of today will find it hard to envisage a time when GSM or SIM-based services were not available.
Paktel (under Cable & Wireless) and Instaphone (under Millicom) launched their nationwide advanced mobile phone service (AMPS) and time division multiple access (TDMA) services respectively in 1990. Initial services were post-paid only and typically required a $250 deposit, while the handsets were clunky and expensive – so the marketing was directed towards corporate customers. Paktel had a distinctive and very well-designed logo, which consisted of six, green-bordered hexagons (representing the shape of the coverage of a cellular tower) joined together as a map of Pakistan on a white background. The logo’s creative message (national coverage) couldn’t have been more discerningly clear.
Instaphone and Paktel competed fairly evenly, with brand marketing reflecting the mobile party pays (MPP) regime of the nineties. As MPP involved paying for calls made and received, the mobile phone was largely perceived and marketed as a corporate or ‘VIP’ communication tool. When Mobilink entered the market in 1994 with their GSM service, the nature of telecom branding changed. Emphasis was on the ‘status’ and ‘exclusivity’ of belonging to a particular mobile network. This was most notable in the branding of Mobilink’s postpaid offering called Indigo – a stylish, sophisticated and successful venture, which easily allowed Mobilink to become the market leader.
Mobilink played a primary role in the development of Pakistan’s pre-paid market with the establishment of its iconic Jazz brand, launched in 1998. Their approach was unique at the time. They introduced the concept of the ‘Jazz Girl’ with the sultry and sensual image of Iman Ali at the centre of the campaign. The concept was shrewd enough to differentiate the service from the Indigo brand while at the same time, maintaining the ‘exclusivity’ of being on the Mobilink network. For many, many, years Jazz remained a truly aspirational brand.
Instaphone’s InstaXcite brand was positioned to challenge Jazz and became notable for using TVCs that were small stories in themselves. The ‘story’ was taken forward in consecutive ads reminiscent of Nescafé’s story-driven nineties coffee ads in the UK. Overall, however, mobile telephony branding remained constrained due to the MPP regime, which remained in force until a little after the turn of the century and only those who could afford it remained privy to mobile telephony services.
The popularity of mobile handsets grew in parallel. The Nokia Communicator was the much sought-after handset for many in the corporate sector, while a loyal following of the Blackberry service (first introduced by Mobilink) made the post-paid market highly viable for telecom companies.
The more affordable Nokia 3310 soon became an icon and its nostalgic value remained so strong that Nokia re-launched a more modern version of it earlier this year. Those aspiring for a new (but yet unaffordable) mobile phone connection resolved firmly that the Nokia 3310 would be their phone of choice. I was among the many with this determination which brings me back to the wave of expectation that preceded Ufone’s entry into the market.
In the run-up to the Ufone launch in January 2001, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) introduced the Calling Party Pays (CPP) regime and mobile telephony became decisively cheaper, especially for prepaid users. While the existing telecom companies focused on expanding their user base in the categories that they had already established, Ufone’s branding took a completely different direction: the mass market.
With the help of Faisal Qureshi’s comic and highly relevant cultural insights, the image of mobile telephony soon transformed into one within the reach of even the thela wala. One of the early and memorable Ufone TVCs features Qureshi proclaiming excitedly to his wife (who hilariously turns out to be his mother-in-law in the end) how affordable and easy it will be to stay in touch using the Ufone service.
Whilst Ufone strongly pitched itself on price, its rivals compromised little and chose to maintain their brand identity and creativity. Even Paktel launched their own prepaid service in 2001 called Tango, but could not keep pace with their rivals, despite switching to GSM services in 2004. Paktel’s and Instaphone’s international owners sold their stakes soon after Warid and Telenor entered the market in 2005.
At this point, the inventive branding that defined the market started to slide. Telenor, and especially Warid, did remain creative for a year or so after launch, but the rot that can now so clearly be seen in today’s telecom branding had begun to set in, with full-blown price wars being the malicious driver.
Paktel was eventually bought out by China Telecom in 2007 and rebranded as Zong the year after. That rebrand was the beginning of a journey that, within a decade, would make Zong the conqueror of the 4G market in Pakistan. But that remains a story for another day.
First published in The Dawn of Advertising in Pakistan (1947-2017) on March 31, 2018.
At that time, Yasmin Malik was associated with the UK’s Informa Telecoms and Media.
She is now Senior Partner & Consultant, Global Management Consultants, Dubai.