In Africa we had an unconditional love affair with Initial Public Offering of Company (IPO) perhaps ten years. Today, our reaction to them is the same as almost anywhere else in the world. We are interested, but also increasingly cynical.
The marketing of IPO’s ha been rather ‘hit and miss in’ Africa. But when we look around we realize that that, too, is the global experience.
Take the recent Facebook IPO, where the social media giant had a target valuation as high as $104 billion. But the IPO, much trumpeted, is already being discounted as a burst bubble. And once again, individual investors have lost value since the share began to trade.
Facebook’s stock opened on Friday, May 18, at $38 per share. Seven minutes after the opening, 110 million shares had traded, with the stock eventually reaching a high of $45 a share. But as I write, the stock price has slide to below $30.
So, how actively was the IPO marketed? Well with only 15 - 25 percent of the total shares going to smaller investors, the marketing emphasis was on an investor roadshow. This initially received a lukewarm reception, until it was adapted to include more Q&A. Interesting: a brand that is all about open conversations didn’t make that central to its marketing effort?
There’s no doubt that the Company is big and profitable. Facebook had total revenues of $3.8 billion in 2011, with an operating profit of $1.5 billion. Nor that many people use the brand. The eight-year-old social network brand has more than 901 million members, and nearly half a billion people around the world log into Facebook every day. In Africa the community has just over 40 million members, and is growing exponentially. More Fortune 500 companies also have corporate Facebook pages, rather than Twitter aliases.
One US commentator called the Facebook shares ‘Muppet bait’. Harsh, but what are you buying into here. You’re buying into social contact and conversations, not machinery and land. But clearly scale and success weren’t enough. Could it be that the brand value wasn’t there to play a role?
WPP’s seminal report on brand health – BrandZ - published at the same time as the IPO may give us a clue. It reveals the nature of the most valuable global brands, and shows why they are where they are. The top 20 brands in the world invest in brand equity a way we would understand. Marketing activity on a large scale, with very strong and consistent brand equity messages.
Apple, Coca-Cola, Vodafone and Africa’s first global brand success: MTN. Facebook doesn’t do that. Indeed I’m not sure Facebook promotes its brand outside its own world. It relies on PR, which is generally very good, and word-of-mouth via their site. But what if the PR goes in the opposite direction?. As Rosamund Urwin said in the London Evening Standard “Facebook is only a major privacy scandal away from a mass desertion.”
By comparison Apple is #1 according to BrandZ and it has great products, fantastic stores and great advertising. All solid foundations for a strong brand. Its design and customer ethos percolates through the entire operation.
Then there’s the issue of future potential versus present reality. The odds are fair that Facebook will put to profitable use all those ‘likes’ and ‘keywords’ culled from conversations and friend lists and appearances in photos, perhaps even selling it for use by marketers.
The Company might get its own “adwords moment” as Google did when it realized it could sell search results to the highest bidder. Facebook might find something no one has thought of yet. But, whatever value it obtains will result from the uses to which the data is put. The connections between people will prove to have no inherent value, other than to the people themselves.
I’ll leave the last words on this to Y&R’s global CEO, David Sable: ‘Facebook didn’t really know who their friends were. They assumed that having a billion people on their platform created one big ‘like’ and that one big ‘like’ would have an exponential effect on their stock price. Wrong!’
He adds a quote from Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather: “Friendship and money: oil and water.”
Chris Harrison is Chairman Young & Rubicam Group Africa