Tecno is on a roll. Their devices are in 17 African countries, and if their marketing department is to be believed, they are selling like gang busters. A healthy slice of those sales happen in Nigeria, which by their own admission constitutes about 50 percent of their African market — which in turn translates into 20 percent of the Nigerian mobile device ecosystem.

These and more fun Tecno facts were fed to us at the last Developer Parapo by Tecno DGM, Chris Okonkwo. Chris put Tecno’s Nigerian device shipment numbers for 2012 at over 20 million units. He projected that they will achieve double that volume in 2013.

Of course, things are on the up and up for the Chinese company. In their five years here, they’ve been doing increasingly brisk business in the low end/low budget mobile segments. They’ve earned the trust and collaboration of other players in the ecosystem, inking crucial co-branding and marketing partnerships with the local network carriers and content kingpins along the way. Up to the point that they now feel confident enough to start cultivating their own content ecosystem and commissioning developers to work on localised software for the Tecno platform. In the course of the presentation, they announced an apps competition that should see developers walk away with millions of Naira in winnings.

There is no question that Tecno has been successful. Even if you would sneer at their Powerpoint numbers, the evidence is in the hands of most of the people I see in the Danfos I ride daily. Tecno’s immense popularity with the price sensitive BoP is such that no self-respecting trader or market woman would dream of leaving home without their trusty Tecno — with its dual/triple SIMs, radio, flashlight, television, and all the other doohickeys that the Asian geniuses manage to cram onto these dirt cheap devices.

But Tecno’s success wasn’t all their presentation was about. It was also about where they are headed next. It showed us a mobile company that’s firing on all cylinders, plotting an upward course for higher end devices and markets in the next two years. It showed us a company that wants to move up from the bottom of the consumer pyramid to more aspirational, higher margin slopes. Since they recently began to release smartphones running the Android OS, they’d prefer that you did not refer to them as the cheap and tacky “chinko” brand.

Except that a cheap and tacky chinko brand is exactly what Tecno has been for the past five years. In fact, that’s why the people that love them, love them. For instance —

– Why buy an expensive phone when you can get three (or more) Tecnos for the price of one? One for the master, one for the dame, and one for the little boy, even if he might dunk it in his soup plate.

– You generally do not have to worry about breaking a Tecno. If it breaks — they are in fact known to be somewhat fragile and quirk-prone — just buy another one. They are that cheap.

– You don’t have to worry about losing it, or about it getting stolen either. If you forget it somewhere, it will like as not find its way back to you, courtesy of an irritated good Samaritan. And what kind of loser steals a Tecno?

Short story short — Tecno is the official phone of the masses. That’s the image they’ve spent years actively ingraining into the Nigerian and African mobile consumer consciousness.

That leads us to consider the flip side of the brand equation. Most status conscious mid to high-end consumers that typically tote Samsungs, BlackBerries and the occasional iPhone would not be caught dead with a Tecno. Why? Because the company has lived in the place of cheap and chinko for so long that it’s hard to imagine them as anything else. Answer a simple question for me, would you? If you were offered a device with the precise same glorious technical specs of a Samsung Galaxy S4, but with the Tecno logo slapped on it, how much would it be worth to you? 100k? 70k? I’m guessing less. Much less.

At the devparapo event too, the skepticism was palpable. There were more than a few doubts raised about the potential upside of making software for a brand that is considered “inferior”.

That’s the problem Tecno has to deal with right now. While it might have been great brand strategy for the low end market, being perceived as “chinko” could turn out to be the biggest chink in their armour, as they attempt a campaign into the mid-range and high end where the juicier, Apple-like margins are. Their bravest advance so far is the N7 — a huge device with a 5 inch screen that is trying hard to look like the Samsung Galaxy Note, only that it falls far short in punching power, and all for a whopping N30,000.

So the question now is, how do you hype a brand like Tecno?

It will be interesting to see how they go about realising their sudden desire to upgrade their swag and convince the bigz boys and blackberry babes that Tecno is a brand worth rocking. For starters, we’ve been told that Tecno will be introducing a new device into the market, a touchscreen and Qwerty-hybrid, which they have brazenly chosen to call the “Q10” — an obvious nod to the anxiously anticipated Touch-Qwerty BlackBerry Q10. Whether this sort of unabashed marketing spoof strategy will win out is anybody’s guess, but I’m hoping that this isn’t their best idea.

I might even have some for them. In addition to brand gimmickry, there’s a lot Tecno could still do to help itself — how about investing in some truly imaginative end to end branding that not only handles the large campaigns, but also keeps track of the little details — like decent product photos. I couldn’t find any on the internet, for any of their products. Tacky.

A more strategic move however is the a partnership between Tecno, Mobiwire and Earning Way Investments to create Infinix — a new mobile brand which will be fully focused on Android smartphones. They are obviously counting on this brand to acquire the swag that it’s older Tecno sibling missed, growing up.

One thing that Tecno definitely must do is concentrate on forging an iron-clad software and hardware strategy. Good products often make a stronger case for buying them by themselves than all the branding and spin-doctoring in the world. Tecno in fact already seems to have begun recruiting their Android voltrons one by one, and a few votes from respected connoisseurs can go a long way, so long as they follow up on delivering a quality experience all round, and don’t “fall our hands” when the devices are put through their paces.

Samsung  used to be in Tecno’s place once upon a time (interestingly, one of the Tecno spokespersons acknowledged Sammy to be their “oga at the top”). They came from being the underdog, just another cheap mobile phone manufacturer to world’s biggest OEM and an increasingly desirable brand by pouring insane amounts of cash into their branding and marketing. And all the while doggedly pushing towards making top-of-the-line devices that people like — no, love. It’s a powerful combination that few can pull off. We’ll see if Tecno has the will, the budget, but most important of all, the imagination to transform themselves into an aspirational brand.

Bankole Oluwafemi Author

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