Telenor’s Asian journey and future

Tor Odland
Tor Odland

Tor Odland is head of corporate communications in Asia for Telenor Group, which is the largest mobile operator in the South East Asia region and one of the top ten operators in the world. He is responsible for building the Telenor brand across large markets such as India, Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Malaysia. His role is furthermore to advise the national executive management teams on best practice communications strategy and issues management. Tor Odland joined the Telenor Group as the Vice President of Group Communications in August 2011, but Telenor’s Asian journey started long before that. Nearly twenty years ago in 1996 the company representatives travelled across Asia and slowly began building the business by launching in Bangladesh – then in Malaysia and Thailand a few years later. Today, Telenor is present in six Asian markets, more than any other international telecom provider.

Now Telenor’s global customer base is more than 190 million, and the company are on the way to get 200 million people on the Internet by 2017 – most of these being users in Asia. When it comes to building a global footprint in these large and very populous markets, Telenor faces different challenges.

“Operating in Asia can be unpredictable. You have to be prepared for the unexpected at all times. Part of my job is to help our companies be prepared on how to handle a variety of challenges,” Tor Odland explains.

Prior to Telenor, he was a Vice President of Corporate Communications at Opera Software from 2004. He received his Master of Science degree as The London School of Economics and Political Science and his Bachelor’s Degree from The University of South Carolina. He is now based in Singapore, from where he is building the Telenor brand across six different markets. The branding happens on both a local level and a global level.

“On the one hand, we build our brand locally based on our global standards and policies, , but we also allow each company to do things that make them different. One of the key success factors is to have a customer-focused approach and to be best on value,” Tor Odland explains.

While building the Telenor brand, he works more towards influencing the minds of what he calls “the informed elite” and less towards the minds of the end consumers, which is the responsibility of the local business unit.

“The informed elite are the people who work in the government, international national organisations, human rights groups or in the media for example. The mobile industry is heavily regulated, and therefore it’s in our interest to help governments and large organisations to understand that Telenor is a large, responsible company with a long-term perspective. But ultimately our industry is all about winning the customers – everything is centred on that,” he says.

And it seems that Telenor is doing just that. In 2013 Brand Finance – the leading global brand valuation agency – evaluated the 50 most valuable brands from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Telenor secured the fourth place. Furthermore, Brand Finance named Telenor as that year’s fastest riser, with a value growth of 55%.

One of the tools Telenor use to build their brand is social media.

Digital media and the internet have without a doubt transformed the telecommunications industry. Telecom companies now operate in an industry where there is a constant competition about who offers the best internet coverage at the best price.

“Previously we made most of our revenue on SMS and voice calls. Now most of the growth comes from data – or the internet services we all constantly use on our phones. We have to figure out how to deliver fast data at the right price. We need to find the right balance,” Tor Odland says.

Providing a service that is so commonly used requires a direct, real-time access to the customers in order to stay one step ahead of the competition. This is why social media is largely used in the telecom industry to talk to the customers and respond to their questions, to update the customers and to promote products or services. According to Tor Odland, it’s becoming an integrated part of the telecom industry.

“Social media usage is very prevalent in our Asian markets. One year ago merely five percent used a mobile phone in Myanmar. Today that number is more than forty percent, and more than sixty percent of those use the Internet on the phone. That’s a higher percentage than in Thailand,” he says.

This rapid development of Internet usage has also led to Telenor seeing the need to educate the consumers in how to behave responsibly on the Internet. They teach, among other things, about online bullying, how to avoid viruses and how to protect your personal data.

“In some of these markets the internet is a new concept, so we try to teach them how to use it responsibly. We also train people to understand, that if you post a picture on the Internet it will be there forever,” Tor Odland says and gives an example of another decision made by the company relating to responsibility.

“We have also implemented a child pornography filter in most of our countries. We don’t like to block stuff on the Internet in general, but when it comes to child pornography it is absolutely our job to contribute to curbing this problem.”

Another aspect that social media has brought to the industry is within the field of customer service. People no longer have to wait in line at their local telecom store for help or to call a customer service agent. If a customer has an issue, he or she can tweet or post a message on Facebook to their service provider and receive an immediate response.

“I think as an industry we have been on a journey of increased transparency. And that’s a standard of how we operate. It’s everyone’s responsibility to take care of the customers. I think the industries in Asia are still on that journey. They are certainly interested in being profiled well, but have a different approach to being transparent. I think it’s a bit of a cultural difference,” Tor Odland says.

Telenor’s policy of transparency became visible in a recent incident in Thailand. The consumption of Facebook in the country is huge, and on the 28th of May 2014, Facebook was briefly inaccessible to many users in Thailand. Tor Odland, told a Norwegian newspaper that DTAC had received instructions from Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) on that very same day to block access to Facebook in Thailand. This led to Telenor being criticised by NBTC’s spokesperson for whistle blowing.

“Let me answer in principle. When the government reaches out to us and makes a request, we follow our established procedures. And this very often includes being open about such requests. We work systematically with trying to find a balance between the internationally recognized human rights and local regulations and interests,” Tor Odland says when asked to comment on what could be learned from the incident. When asked if anything would be done differently should such a request appear again, he says, that there would be an evaluation of the request, and Telenor would most likely be open about it again.

When it comes to predicting the future and the Internet’s influence on the long-term prospects, nothing is certain.

“We don’t know where the world of the Internet is going, so it’s hard to predict five years ahead for sure. It’s even hard to predict two years into the future. But I’m sure you will see Telenor developing more of its own services as well as partnering with the existing internet companies. We will take a more prominent position in the internet space.”

Telenor has already developed a variety of services for different countries. In some countries they have launched music services and online learning tools and in other countries they have introduced shopping apps. In Asia, Telenor is a major provider of mobile financial services – where customers without a bank account get access to modern financial services such as money transfers and insurance.The company is also partnering with bigger companies such as Google and Facebook to collaborate on providing cutting-edge internet services to the mass markets of Asia.

“We operate in very competitive and challenging markets. We have to be able to deliver word class services and also be seen as a positive corporate citizen. That’s very important, as we will often be seen as a foreign company in many of these markets,” Tor Odland concludes.


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