How do mobile money providers view their customers?

As mobile money services continue to roll out around the world, it is becoming increasingly clear that its uses, and its users, are diverse. To what extent do mobile money providers recognize this diversity and use it as a marketing strategy? I pondered this question as I browsed mobile money television advertisements on YouTube.

Two advertisements in particular stood out for me: M-Pesa's "Send Money Home" advertisement by Safaricom in Kenya, and TchoTcho Mobil's "Keep Cash Safe" advertisement by Digicel in Haiti. They caught my eye because they create a similar scene, yet they are promoting very different uses of mobile money.

In M-Pesa's advertisement, a forty-something-year-old male, dressed in a snappy suit, glances at his watch as he enters his office building. Settling behind his desk, he gazes at a photograph and smiles. He picks up his mobile phone and selects "M-PESA" and "Send money" from the Safaricom menu.

Banknotes begin to stream out of the phone and travel through the air and into a rural Kenyan field. An elderly woman, dressed in a pink blouse and a purple headscarf, pulls out her phone and smiles, showing it to a man standing next to her.

We, the television audience, imagine that these are the peasant parents of the city worker. The camera zooms in on the phone's screen so that we can see that the woman has just received 1,000 Kenyan shillings (US$12). She jovially heads into an M-PESA outlet and withdraws the cash as a voice-over tells us that M-PESA is a safe and reliable way to send money. Throughout the advertisement, a catchy jingle sings the service's praises.

Approximately twelve thousand kilometers away in Haiti, another elderly woman, wearing a white house dress and a red headscarf, checks her cash savings kept in different parts of her home. She extracts Haitian gourdes from a jar on top of the cupboard. She puts some in a cloth under her sofa, and stores others in the toes of a pair of yellow shoes.

A voice-over tells us that this woman's problem is that the money she keeps around the house for emergencies has been going missing. Unsatisfied with her new domestic hiding places, she has decided to keep her cash in a safer place: her TchoTcho Mobile account. She visits an outlet and deposits her money, and we are told that her savings will stay safe–and out of reach of her pilfering grandson–even if her phone is lost or stolen.

Stills from M-PESA's advertisement "Send Money Home"
Stills from M-PESA's advertisement "Send Money Home"
Stills from TchoTcho Mobile's "Keep Cash Safe" advertisement
Stills from TchoTcho Mobile's "Keep Cash Safe" advertisement

For me, the change in product focus is representative in a shift in how we understand mobile money as a product, as well as a reflection of the fact that the Kenyan and Haitian mobile money markets are different.

In Kenya there is a high level of rural-to-urban migration, whose remittance needs helped make mobile money a success. Their advertisement is a classic take on mobile money. The beauty of images of money flying through the air is that we know it is a fiction. Money does not move by itself. It moves via the actions of people, it moves through the mediation of technologies, and it moves with people and other goods.

But the advertisement represents a kind of enchanted view of money transfer, in which material obstacles are magically overcome through the wonder of technology. And the benefit, it is implied, is increased consumer happiness through connecting in valuable ways with fellow human beings.

In Haiti, the scenario is different. As well as remittances, Digicel have chosen to represent mobile money as a service that can increase individual security. Whereas selling remittance services involves appealing to people's affection for their social cohort, TchoTcho Mobile’s "Keep Cash Safe" advertisement appeals to people's distrust of others, including their own families.

In fact, this may well be a common use of mobile money services in Haiti. In our early research, we observed a prevalence of what we termed "Me2Me" payments–depositing cash m-money account to avoid having to store it at home or carry it around.

These are just two small examples out of a total of seventy-five national mobile money markets. But they raise interesting questions about market segmentation. Mobile money is far more than a replacement for formal remittance services. It incorporates all of the properties of money–as a unit of account, a store of value, and a medium of exchange–and more besides. Let's see how creative mobile money providers can get.