“And I think no matter what your dream is, if you’re able to find a larger purpose, a larger impact that lives beyond you, all of a sudden all of your bullshit that’s holding you down becomes a lot less relevant.” — Alex Banayan 

It was on one of the most unbearably sunny days in 2015 that MeTL launched our own line of carbonated soft drinks. 

The heat boiled our skin. Which should have made it a perfect condition to launch our cool, sparkly, fizzy drinks. But really, all we felt was this unsettling cloud in our stomachs instead.

We were nervous because we were fifth in the market, right behind three local competitors as well as the two giants—Coca-Cola and Pepsi. 

Now, competition within the soft drink business was strife to the point that even the giants had to “up their game” to make sure they didn’t lose market share.

So the cheetah was fifth in place. Every strand of its fur stood alert. Its eyes were fixed on the beasts in front of it. We had entered the market late and our competition all had excellent marketing strategies. 

How were we going to race past them to get to the front of the consumers’ minds?

You Need to Fail Before You Can Grow

At the beginning, we merely pushed our sodas through the distribution channel. But no one was buying. We pushed some more, and then again. 

Still, it didn’t work. We were selling less than 15% of what we were producing. 

We introduced several flavours—Mo Cola, Mo Chungwa (an orange-flavoured soda), Mo Portello (a raspberry-flavoured soda), Malt Apple, and Malt Pineapple etc. They were priced lower than our competitors’ products and came in different offerings—280ml and 400ml.

This was good, right? We gave consumers MORE products at a LOWER price, plus options.

Yet, silence rang louder than our expectations. No one asked for our products. No one was willing to try our drinks. 

Undeterred, we thought we’d try again.

Our next move was to send merchandisers out to display cut-outs and danglers in the shops so that people were aware of our products. See our posters? Go get the products! 

It was as if people were blind to us. Sales barely trembled. 

We could have wailed and raged and cursed our customers for lacking the courage to try new stuff. But deep down, I knew it was because we had made no efforts in connecting with our consumers at all. Frankly, why would they want to buy from us?

Stress was high in all corners of our company. We had heavily invested in the production plant and our goal was to double production in the next two years. With such bleak results, it just wasn’t possible. 

I felt stuck and drained. 

Simon Says

Things became so difficult that I thought of giving up. I was disconnected from our brand and there was a gap inside me. Like a hole of loss. My burning passion was being drowned by so much negativity. 

During that period, when I woke at 7 a.m., I would switch on the TV. I was near mentally finished except for a last trace of persistence still holding out for…something. Hope? Motivation? I wasn’t sure. Anyway, I would search for inspiring programmes to give me a boost, any boost I could find was fine. 

So one morning while sipping coffee, I picked to watch a TED Talk. I stumbled across one on leadership by Simon Sinek, a British-American motivational speaker and author of four books, including “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”

And man, quite a talk that was. Quite the boost I needed. Quite the jolt that brought me back to life!

In his illuminative TED Talk, Simon goes deep into how great companies distinguish themselves from the rest.

Most companies go by this sequence: First, they identify “What” it is they do—for e.g., they sell computers.

Then they identify “How” they do it—they set up this system, they create a beautiful design, blah, blah, blah.

Then they come to “Why” they are doing this. Uh, because they want to sell computers? For most companies, they draw up a blank or come up with a fuzzy reason at this stage. They have no idea why they want to do what they’re doing!

In Simon’s talk, he highlighted Apple, the company that uses another approach. Apple starts with “Why”—Because they want to “challenge the status quo.” Because they “believe in thinking differently.”

Then they go on to the “How”—Through making the computers beautiful and easy-to-use.

Last of all, the “What”—They make computers.

I’ll bet when they first talked about challenging the status quo and thinking differently, they’d already had your attention. In our generation, everybody yearns to stand out and be “unique” or “different.” Apple’s “Why” speaks directly to our vision of who we want to be.

Following up are the “How” and “What” factors to support your budding connection with Apple and to seal the deal.

Most companies blather on about their products and what they can do. But they don’t know why they do what they do, which makes it extremely difficult for customers to connect with and trust them. 

This is why, as Simon also tells us, when Dell came out with MP3 players, nobody bought them. Because nobody felt connected with Dell and their latest product. Why did Dell come out with this thing? How is it a good fit for us? How is it a good fit for me? Why should I buy it?

Which led me to the most brilliant gem of an insight offered by Simon (who offers plenty, by the way):

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

What we do doesn’t matter as much as why we do it. It never will.

And it was down to me to find out WHY MeTL does what we do.

How My Driver Almost Single-handedly Saved MeTL

“You have a company. Why do you have that company? What is the value your company is offering to others and what do you want your company to leave behind when you’re gone? There has to be a purpose for why your company exists beyond the things you make, beyond the things you do, beyond the money you make.”

Simon Sinek

Before my “Simon enlightenment,” if you’d asked me what MeTL was about, I could go on and on about how many manufacturing units we had, how much oil and soap we sold, and how many metres of textiles we produced (enough to wrap the world eight times, if you must know). 

It was a well-memorised chant that echoed through the company. Even when we spoke to the media, that was all everyone talked about—the macro “What” level. 

While I was returning home from the oil refinery one afternoon, my driver, Esa, started chatting about one of our latest products and how helpful it would be.

“Helpful? How so?” I asked.

“The malaria mortality rates are so high in Tanzania. Your new mosquito repellent soap will keep my family and me safe.”

I blinked. 

Esa had moved on to how much he was enjoying our new malt peach drink. But my conscious was still lingering on what he’d said about our soap keeping his family and him safe.

It hit me. 

Our big “Why.” 

From the time Tanzanians wake up to the time they go to sleep, our products surround them and touch their lives in seemingly small yet extremely significant ways. 

We create products that people need and enhance them, so they can improve our customers’ lives. We keep families safe. We help mothers and wives run their households smoothly. We add a touch of flavour to beverages that folks under the scorching sun can enjoy. We provide good textile, so our customers have prettier and better-quality clothes.

We help people live better. This is what our brand is about. 

Previously, no one understood just how much we were making an impact on people’s daily lives. But in that brief exchange I had with Esa, the realisation didn’t just dawn on me, it poured.

My Next Challenge

I was brimming with ideas. I knew our big “Why” now and was raring to go. I was going to tell our customers all about it.

Yet, I couldn’t move. Not yet.

The biggest struggle I experienced at that point was in telling our brand story (why we’re doing what we’re doing) and telling it in a way that resonated with our audience. It’s all very well to get pumped about your life or business purpose. But if you can’t express your big “Why” with conviction and stirring power, you’re still toast.

Why would our products matter? Why would anyone care to buy a Mo soda?

How could we build deeper relationships with our customers, ones that would be different from how our competitors did it?

How were we going to remind our customers that we were in their lives, that we were a part of their life stories? 

Because our “Why” isn’t only about us, it’s about our customers. When we create a campaign, it shouldn’t be about how great our products are. Rather, it must be how our products can add value to our customers. The focus has to shift from our company to our customers.

My team members had spent a lot more time in the market than I had, so I sought their advice. They gave me one heck of an idea through our energy drink. They said our customers loved it because it helped them get through a day of tedious work. 

Work can be really tough over here. When there is a general feeling of losing hope and giving in to defeat, people need something to perk them up even if it’s only slight comfort or cheer. Our energy drink fulfilled that role.

This was when I was inspired to create a campaign called “Usikate Tamaa.” 

What is Usikate Tamaa

Throughout our lives, nobody is spared obstacles and challenges. Maybe you are a young teenager struggling to get your education every day. Maybe you are a single parent working two jobs to pay for your child’s education. Or maybe you are a young adult who has been told repeatedly that you are not going to make it in life. 

We all face difficulties, some more intense than the others.

Usikate Tamaa is about telling these stories to the public. It is about bringing our struggles to light, about sharing them not for commiseration but for the sole purpose of encouraging others not to give up. 

We believe in making a difference in people’s lives.

The first step we took was to ask our customers to share their stories, their intimate stories of how they didn’t lose hope despite the challenges hurled at them. And how they gradually stepped out of their personal darkness into beams of success. 

This would in turn inspire others on their paths.

With this vision in mind, I set out to find a story that could echo the spirit of Usikate Tamaa perfectly. That was when I learned about Shetta’s. 

Born in the city of Dar es Salaam, Shetta (whose real name is Nurdin Bilal Ali) grew up dreaming of becoming a musician. However, even though he believed he was talented, people thought he would never get anywhere. Having an artistic dream was considered lofty and luxurious. 

Not possible, others would tell him time and again. Stop dreaming.

Shetta was not one to lose hope so easily. He used to live with a big musician in the country, Dully Sykes, and from there, worked his way into the music circle through washing cars and dishes. Like my father, Shetta was not afraid to work hard. He was not reluctant to start from the low rungs to climb to where he wanted to be.

And eventually, he did. Naysayers and life’s disappointments couldn’t mute his passion. He is now one of our most successful musicians, with several songs topping various music charts in Tanzania and even across the whole of Africa.

His personal story of grit and perseverance inspired me and I knew it would inspire millions more. Who else could launch our campaign better than Shetta? I reached out to him and he agreed.

Excitement emitted from every pore of my body. I was so engrossed with this project that my team and I did everything—from brainstorming on the branding and the artwork to filming and directing the ad for the campaign ourselves. We spent $400 for an ad that went viral. 

What made it go viral? 

The storyline. It was about a young man doing hard labour painting walls who then rushed to different interviews, hoping to get a better job. He faced disparaging treatments from potential employers. He stood through humiliating remarks. He was willing to work hard (we saw him painting walls under the sun), yet nobody would give him a chance.

And he broke down. 

Who couldn’t relate to how he was feeling?

Then a friend offered our energy drink to him. It wasn’t just an energy drink that cooled him off. It was a drink that was like a friend, that comforted him then restored his spirits. So he tried again and went for one more interview.

Tears of disappointment became tears of joy when he got the handshake he’d yearned for.

And who wouldn’t smile and cheer at that? Our audience was hooked because we had told their story in the ad.

Soon after, we were unstoppable. People would sing to our jingles and share their stories on social media. We’ve since created a community where people can share their personal stories and help one another. We’re now a genuine part of their stories. 

This is Usikate Tamaa. 

And we’re only just beginning.

Not Merely Soda Sellers 

We are more than that.

Through our Mo brand, we want to share feelings, we want to spread hope, we want our drinks to pass on physical energy and emotional strength. 

When our customers take a sip of our soda, we want them to feel their fatigue and despair fizzing off their bodies and minds. We want them to feel less lonely in their struggles. We want them to be reminded that they are surrounded by others’ support and love. 

We also want to respect and acknowledge everyone’s inner strength and perseverance. We want to honour these ordinary folks. We want to give them a place to share their voices so others can hear them and feel inspired. 

Outside the company, finding our “Why” has helped us reach and touch our customers.

Inside the company, it has also led to several business results: 

First, we get to produce more flavours that our customers are excited about, like Coffee Malt, Mo Pineapple, Mo Lemon Mint, and Vanilla Cola. 

Second, since customers have responded warmly towards our flavoured drinks, we get to push for Mo Cola too. 

Our cola drink used to be a huge splinter on our side because we could not compete with the giants—Coca Cola and Pepsi. These two competitors have been around for so long we couldn’t penetrate the market as deeply. Also, they have enormous budgets and a strong distribution channel dedicated to only one product while our budget must be spread across hundreds. Hence, we had very little market share with Mo Cola.

To pull out this splinter, we decided to attract consumers through our other soda flavours, flavours that aren’t available from other companies. This strategy called Flanking Marketing (think of it as attracting customers from the flanks of your core product, i.e. those “side” products) has worked beautifully. Drawn initially by our distinctive soda flavours, consumers are now confident in us and are more than willing to try out Mo Cola. We recently re-launched our cola and its smashing success has allowed it to stand right beside the two giants!

Third, because of our successful campaign, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have to raise their game as well. This competition has pushed everyone in the soft drink industry to become more innovative in their marketing. 

Creativity sparks all around. 

An Interesting Side Story on Competing with Others

It’s difficult to ignore your competitors. Especially when you are in a desperate race to the top. But sometimes, we need to adjust our lens and see more clearly what we are competing against.

When we stopped worrying about what the giants were doing, we were able to take another shot at the big picture. And we did better.

In a similar case, when Roberto Goizueta took over as the CEO of The Coca-Cola Company in the 1980s, he was handed the immense task of surpassing Pepsi in sales. As their biggest competitor, Pepsi was eating away their market share.

The Coca-Cola executives were obsessed with Pepsi and bent on increasing their market share 0.1% at a time.

Roberto, however, made the decision to zoom out of their focus on Pepsi. 

He adjusted their lens. And zoomed in on the whole beverage market instead. Water, coffee, tea, milk, and juices were their competitors, not just Pepsi. In that strategic move, he changed the entire game plan.

He asked his team how much fluid an American took on average per day. 

“14 ounces.”

What was Coca-Cola’s share of that?

“2 ounces.”

Roberto told them they needed a larger share of this market instead. He wanted the public to reach for a coke whenever they felt like having a drink.

Hence sprouted the coke vending machines on every street corner. 

Coca-Cola’s sales took a quantum leap.

Big lesson here: Adjust your lens once in a while. There could be a bigger picture you’re missing.