November 22, 2009

How Easy is it for a Company to Own a Word?

There are many companies out there that have successfully created ownership of existing and new words in our daily language – putting a Band-aid on, Googling a phrase, Xeroxing an article, Hoovering the carpet – you get the idea.

Once a company name or word becomes entrenched in people’s minds, it creates a very powerful mental link which massively markets that company through word of mouth and social media. The basic act of a person talking about what they are going to do can become a form of marketing for a company, which is incredibly powerful.

But, how easy is it for companies to own words like these? How are words like these cemented into customer’s minds so that they become common language? Recently, a telecommunications company in South Africa – MTN – overhauled their branding to position themselves as the exciting, hip and cool choice for customers. They did this through a single word – “ayoba”, and results have been exceptional. Take a look at the following MTN advert to see an example of how they used it (no I was not paid to place this in my blog!):

The term “ayoba” is an expression of general delight or approval, rather than a word with a specific meaning.

It has its origins on the dance floor and is an evolution of expressions such as “ayeye” and “yoyo”, used to express approval or appreciation of good dancing in South Africa.


Launching the Ayoba campaign in Joburg earlier last month, MTN chief marketing officer Serame Taukobong said: “This is about getting ordinary South Africans excited about the World Cup, by giving them a chance to be part of the 2010 celebration of soccer, fun and dance.”

Radio stations around the country, such as KFM and 5fm, are promoting competitions and events sponsored by MTN – and always use that single, powerful word.

MTN is also an official sponsor of the world cup next year, and it has definitely leveraged this position to reach the eyes and ears of pretty much the entire country.

The MTN adverts end with a cheerful bunch singing “Ayobayobayobayo” – a catchy lyric if there ever was one.

Whenever I go out to malls or to the city centre in Cape Town, there are posters of MTN adverts with their well-known yellow colours and of course, the word “Ayoba” appearing everywhere.

The effect has been so amazingly powerful, that even radio talkshow hosts, DJs and even callers have begun using the word to express excitement or happiness about something. Its pervading our daily language very quickly here in South Africa, and the best part is that this word connects people’s minds directly with MTN.


Sales figures have not yet been released, but I can guarantee that this marketing campaign is an outstanding success – even though they spent R28 million rand on it. Big props to Serame Taukobong. How did MTN achieve to own the word Ayoba? Here are my break-down points that I think were critical to the success of this campaign and to owning the word “Ayoba”:

  • The word was not a (very) common one in everyday language, and had no pre-existing associations in people’s minds. Thus, it was essentially free for the taking.
  • The word is congruent with the spirit of MTN – a fun and hip company with equally fun and hip customers.
  • The word induces positive emotions when heard – especially with the people singing it. This roots itself into people’s minds, and actually induces endorphins when heard.
  • The word had no exact meaning prior to the campaign, which allowed MTN to define it and brand it as their own.
  • Absolute pervasiveness. Every radio ad, TV ad, brochure and website of MTN’s featured the word prominently, along with bright yellow colours and happy people.

To end this post off, here is an insightful interview with the campaign managers of MTN:

I have definitely learnt something from the execution of this marketing strategy, and hope to leverage similar branding principles in my own company. :-)

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  1. Sconners November 24, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Yeah, but do you have a few million bucks spare in order to launch the word into the community the same way MTN has, the only reason it’s so successful is that firstly it’s catchy but more importantly it’s been “injected” directly into everyone’s life, you can’t do anything without seeing or hearing it…..and THAT cost big bucks….

  2. ceo November 24, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    I agree with you Scon, but its also a time/cost tradeoff. Google, for example, never did much in the way of marketing, yet it is a household name. It did this through years of exceptional products delivered with a catchy word . The masses loved it and viral marketing made it the popular product it is today.

    MTN had a much shorter timeframe in mind, so they have ploughed tons of money into it. I’m sure that if MTN started associating “Ayoba” with its brand without the huge marketing budget, it would eventually connect with people, but over a much longer period of time.

  3. Nicolas November 24, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Ugh, I liked! So clear and positively.

  4. jewson ayoba February 7, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    ayoba b.i.t.c.h.e..s!!!


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