KESC’s mission improbable

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Published in Aurora Magazine, July-August 09 issue)

Jahanzaib Haque

With the summer heat beating down on Karachi and load-shedding in full swing, hardly a day goes by without the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC) receiving a scathing press report citing poor performance, incompetence, corruption or criminal negligence.

One can also safely say that hardly an hour goes by without at least a handful of enraged citizens cursing the KESC, using expletives too graphic to mention here. Yet, it is against this backdrop that KESC thought it wise to launch an image building campaign in the print media.

This brave (to put it mildly) proactive step to woo disenchanted Karachiites is the brainchild of the new management and marketing teams of Abraaj Capital, who have stepped in to begin the much touted but largely invisible process of change at KESC.

Surprisingly, Ovais Naqvi, Chief Communications Officer, KESC, appears calm, seated as he is in the eye of the storm. In his view, the prevailing state of affairs is a natural consequence of the past.

“When Abraaj Capital looked at KESC in early 2008, it was apparent that the company was hugely damaged, not just in terms of operational underinvestment, but in terms of a complete absence of positive brand equity with the public. It was clear that we, as the new management, would have to look at building operational capabilities and work on restoring brand equity; ultimately the bond with the customer will come firstly, from delivering the product while also developing an honest and open dialogue.”

For Naqvi, the solution is to build an equation with an operational focus while simultaneously rebuilding and reshaping the brand’s image. Unfortunately for Karachi, this equation has no quick fix built into it.

According to Naqvi, “If you try to plug the power gap immediately in an unstructured way, you will end up with even bigger problems, so our efforts are about focus, realism and long-term delivery.”

Naqvi says it could take up to three years to effectively address the city’s electricity problems. Under these circumstances the objective it seems, is for KESC and its consumers to start a dialogue about making it to that goal together – without hurting each other in the process.

Given the Herculean task at hand, KESC turned to Ogilvy & Mather Pakistan (O&M) to develop their campaign with additional assistance from WPP’s integrated global units, including Fitch, a company specialising in corporate branding.

“We have a mission and this is just the first stage,” says Ardeshir Firouzabadi, Business Director, O&M Pakistan.

“This current campaign outlines what KESC has inherited over the last 20 years; it communicates the company’s deep resolve (catch phrase: azm) to effect change both internally and externally, and outlines the milestones KESC has achieved in terms of recent developments.”

To this end, the campaign has been surprisingly forthcoming, even highlighting KESC’s appalling performance, with the first print ad going as far as stringing together multiple criticisms against the company in a mess of tangled text. Similarly, the next ad in the series focused on the hidden depths of KESC’s challenges, which is emphasised by shaping the body copy into a submerged iceberg, and so on.

Visually captivating in both English and Urdu text, the creative team at O&M Pakistan has ensured that no matter how sceptically the message is received, one cannot help being engaged by the presentation.

“Given the large amount of information we had to convey, the best thing to do was to go for long copy ads,” says Firouzabadi.

“Editorial sections are read a lot over here, and if you look at the placement of our ads, they fit perfectly next to the newspaper text; we figured readers would appreciate the clear, crisp message.”

Opting for the heavy copy format has lent the campaign a measure of credence (however small) which would have been unlikely given your typical image building campaign. In fact, Gary Tranter, Group Executive Creative Director, O&M Pakistan is wary of using the term ‘image building’.

“Image building worries me because if you come off chest beating, then people will be turned off. A glossy, expensive looking campaign will not convey the right sentiment, which is why we based our campaign on typography and facts.”

But honest presentation and visual gimmicks aside, can such communication really have an impact given the decades of mistrust which stand in the way? And perhaps more importantly, what is the point of starting a dialogue with consumers before any

tangible change has been implemented in what is basically the issue of supplying electricity?

“We know there is a lot of pessimism and people don’t believe or understand what KESC is about,” says Tranter.

“I think all of us are aware that we can’t change  perceptions overnight because people have been let down in the past, and it is their right to be sceptical. The only response we want right now is, please just consider what we are saying; give us a chance and hopefully we will prove that there will be big and small changes soon.”

While agreeing that KESC could have waited to launch the campaign after actually making noticeable improvements in power supply and distribution, Tranter justifies the current launch in parallel with development as a means to deliver the most impact without losing lead time.

In this Tranter is perhaps right. The campaign has had an impact, though somewhat lacking in the consideration they had envisioned. However, despite the barrage of criticism, Naqvi says KESC will no longer duck and seek cover in the face of public opinion.

“It is naïve to say that this campaign has been a waste of money, because you can develop and communicate at the same time. When we don’t communicate we are criticised; if we communicate in a bold, transparent way, people feel it is not our right to do so, but it is. We have no obligation to be reticent.”

According to Tranter, the current campaign is just the first of multiple communications coming up aimed at addressing issues which require public support, such as energy conservation, paying electricity bills and eliminating the kunda system.

The marketing team at KESC will be monitoring and gauging consumer response and behaviour to the ongoing campaigns through a tracking system that will measure shifts in electricity use (and misuse) street by street to indicate when and where a particular campaign is having an impact. Additionally, KESC plans to keep a close eye on word of mouth by conducting focus group studies and monitoring opinion leaders.

“At the end of the year if we have fewer reporters writing negative articles about KESC, it will be a big, positive boost,” says Firouzabadi.

While it is too early to gauge the impact of KESC’s attempt at changing its image, the campaign seems to be riding a well intentioned desire to communicate with consumers, while running the risk of having a poor service to back its claims. If that proves to be the case, we can safely assume that Murphy’s old adage, “great ideas are never remembered and dumb statements are never forgotten” may come to define this effort.

BOX:

Seeing the light?

The KESC campaign has managed to raise more than a few eyebrows across Karachi, with responses from the public reflecting common themes – especially the key issue of development versus image building.

Sheikh Mohammad Waseem, a chartered accountant says, “the ads are not convincing at all; they give no confidence to the citizens of Karachi. As a consumer I am interested in improvement in distribution and regular supply of electricity. No solid facts are given in this regard and there is no timeline on the start and conclusion of projects.”

For others, cynicism and mistrust colour the message.

Faisal Tamanna, a business executive residing in Defence says, “such campaigns are a matter of throwing money away instead of developing projects and rectifying the issues. Image building is the second phase of any kind of service industry; first you have to develop projects and only then can you start working on image and pride.”

Yasmin Sultan, a young housewife from Orangi Town says the ads make no difference to the electricity supply, so why bother reading them?

For Zoha Shafi, a student of IoBM, the challenges outlined by the KESC are an eye opener but the claims of a brighter future are ludicrous:

“Any one in an ad agency can write an effective ad, but the bottom line is whether actual work is being done.”

Amidst this scepticism, a minority of Karachiites are willing to give KESC a measure of leeway. While Sarah Jahangir, a resident of Clifton, believes claims to rewrite history are far fetched, she is encouraged by KESC’s attempt to initiate a dialogue.

Similarly for Salman Baig, a resident of Malir, “The KESC campaign is appreciated because good campaigns change minds. I know I can’t do anything for the energy sector alone, but together with KESC, there is a possibility for improvement. However, I can’t ignore the flipside of the coin; with KESC so deeply implicated in corruption, fraud and crimes how can a working balance be achieved?”

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