With more than 280 million subscribers, MTN is one of the world’s largest mobile network operators, and the largest on the African continent. The brand is well-known across the globe, however, thanks in part due to high profile sponsorships of organisations including the South Africa national rugby union team and English football club Manchester United.
While the company is active in over 20 countries, one-third of its revenue comes from Nigeria, where MTN holds approximately 35% market share. For that reason, it is notable to see a company with such a well-recognised brand have a relatively lean IP function. Made up of an advisor, a manager and a general manager, the MTN Nigeria brand protection team maintains and enforces a trademark portfolio of just over 1,000 trademark registrations.
For many trademark teams, the covid-19 pandemic saw many major projects go on the backburner, but not so for MTN Nigeria. As MTN Nigeria’s IP manager Obianuju Otudor reveals, while the health emergency had a significant impact, the IP department’s biggest challenge of the year was conducting a detailed audit of the company’s intangible assets. The audit had various specific objectives, Otudor adds, including:
- To identify any risks to the company’s IP assets;
- To identify unprotected IP and provide recommendations to protect these IP assets;
- To ascertain the company’s ownership of IP used in its business;
- To identify and eliminate IP infringement risks;
- To identify opportunities for commercializing the company’s IP assets;
- To deploy measures to protect the company’s investments in innovations;
- To develop an IP strategy that aligns with the company’s overarching business objective.
As covid-19 spread into Nigeria, though, the team “ran an agile system of work” to ensure the audit could still be conducted without a hitch. “We ran our projects and other business operations seamlessly using technology,” Otudor says. “However, there was a challenge in our external stakeholders stabilising to the ‘new normal’ and this initially posed a lot of delay in getting results at the speed our team had targeted, especially due to the government-ordered lockdown.”
By the end of the audit, numerous company-wide initiatives had been launched by the trademark team, including the creation of IP guidelines and an IP commercialisation strategy document. On top of that, various business divisions were given IP awareness training, while various defensive trademarks were sought in Nigeria to ensure the company’s house marks are adequately protected against unauthorised use. Furthermore, and perhaps the biggest sign of the company putting its brand at the forefront, the trademark department led celebrations of World Intellectual Property Day on 26 April – the first time that MTN Nigeria has marked the occasion.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the three-person team managed to evolve the company’s IP positioning significantly in 2020 – a point raised by numerous nominations the department received.
Of course, to do so required each person to be at the top of their game. When asked which qualities every brand professionals needs in their skills armory, Otudor listed many, including having integrity, reliability, a willingness to grow and learn, being calm under stress, being self-motivated, being competitive and being solutions-oriented. Each of those skills was on full display last year by MTN Nigeria’s trademark team, and the results are standout in a year when so many IP departments had to overcome significant challenges.