Caribbean cell phone company asks South Florida relatives to buy minutes for family back home


An Irish billionaire’s telecommunications company, which has revolutionized cell phone usage in some of the world’s poorest countries, is bringing it’s latest marketing pitch to South Florida.

Digicel is tapping into South Florida’s close ties to Haiti and Jamaica in a campaign that asks families stateside to send minutes home.

Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien has staked a claim in the telecommunication industry by building his cell phone company in developing countries in the Caribbean and South America. The South Florida Digicel campaign includes bus bench ads, billboards and television spots. The message is simple: “Send minutes home.”

Customers stateside can pay to send airtime minutes to family and friends’ pre-paid cell phones in the Caribbean. The concept is not new, but Digicel is seeking to broaden it’s reach.

It is a nod to South Florida’s ties to the Caribbean and the financial influence of the region’s diaspora. Families in Haiti and Jamaica rely heavily on remittances from abroad.

Haiti received $2.1 billion in remittances in 2011, which represents more than one quarter of the national income, according to the Inter-American Development Bank . In 2011, Jamaica received nearly $2 billion in remittances.

“We understand the value of the diaspora,” said Valerie Estimé, CEO of Digicel’s diaspora division. “They are our lifeline.”

Typically the company relies on ethnic media outlets like radio programs and niche publications for advertising, but there was a gap in reaching second- and third- generation Caribbean Americans, who are more plugged in to mainstream media, said Andreina Gonzalez, head of marketing in Digicel’s diaspora division.

“There was an opportunity to step up and go a little further,” Gonzalez said.

The campaign comes at a time when the company is facing some public relations backlash in Haiti and Jamaica. Customers from both islands have taken to social media to decry shoddy connections and poor customer service.

In Haiti, the problems were so acute that Digicel released an apology letter to its customers in December. When the company tried to integrate Voilà, a competitor Digicel acquired, into its network, the integration caused system failures.

“Quite simply, we did not deliver what we promised and we did not communicate effectively with customers through the problem times,” Damian Blackburn, Digicel’s Haiti CEO wrote in the apology.. “We apologize for letting our customers down and want to thank them for their patience and understanding.”

In South Florida, the marketing pitch is family-centered and draws on the diaspora’s need to stay connected. Digicel representatives say airtime minutes are as valuable as the cash remittances families send to the Caribbean.

The advertising features members of a culturally ambiguous animated family smiling and talking on cell phones.

The ads that appear in Little Haiti, North Miami and North Miami Beach are largely targeting the Haitian community. In South Broward, the focus shifts to the Jamaican population.

A similar campaign has also been launched in New York.

Prices range for $7 to $60 to add minutes to a relative’s Digicel account. Transactions can be made online or at participating stores in South Florida.

“You’re able to make a very big difference with a very small amount of your disposable income,” said Estimé. “We know how important it is to be able to get in touch with a mother, a sister or a brother.”

The company recognizes that some of its older customer base prefer the retail model, while younger and more savvy consumers would rather send pay for minutes directly from their computers or cell phones.

“It was really impressive to see Digicel online,” said Geralda Pierre, a Miami Gardens resident who sends minute to Haiti. “It’s so convenient to add minutes for my dad in Haiti who is sick. It makes it easier for me to get in touch with him.”

For now, Digicel says it will continue to mix the old and new. The Creole-language advertisements on Haitian radio and Island TV, a Creole language cable network, are here to stay.

“We are bringing first world convenience in some cases to third world countries,” Estimé said. “Digicel has in a way improved the lives of our loved ones back home.”

Follow @nadegegreen on Twitter

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