Brands in Africa need to rise above partisan offerings

It is a great time to be in marketing in Africa. And not just because the rest of the world has finally woken up to the commercial possibilities of our Continent.
Chris Harrison
Chris Harrison

It is a great time to be in marketing in Africa. And not just because the rest of the world has finally woken up to the commercial possibilities of our Continent.

Yes, a great deal of excitement comes from dealing with inward investors. Inspiring their confidence! Helping them prepare for market entry. Learning best practice from them, and imparting some of our own. Inward investors seem more attracted by merit than by the fabled brown envelope. They really need help, and they have clear deadlines and targets. Many of them are a breath of fresh air.

But I get a different sort of buzz working with African brands that are expanding outwards from their home markets. There’s a real pride in brand offerings that are robust enough to travel. But many of them need a health check before they embark on the journey. Some are frankly a bit arrogant. Others are out of condition, and not yet fit for the challenge (especially if they have enjoyed near-monopoly status at home).

Still more are inadvertently placed in the wrong hands – distributors, agents and even Operations people from the brand owning company. All of them worthy in their own way, but all of them specialists in anything but brand marketing.

Because, when you really think about it, the brand must come first in any expansion plan.  No brand equity, no consumer appeal renders all the infrastructure work slightly irrelevant. But very often a CEO will say, ‘We have nearly finished our branch in Ouagadougou. So soon it will be time for you fellows to get going on The Marketing.’

In fairness, many brand expansion plans are based on the proximity of neighbouring markets and brand equity overlap. Sudanese customers using Kenyan banks across the border. Cameroonian croissants from Yaoundé having a following in Oyem, Gabon.

But then we come to another form of challenge. To what extent do you market the brand equity as is, or how much should you localise it?

Traditional marketing thinking in the West has made much of heritage. The French are past masters at this. We don’t begrudge them for their pre-eminence in wine. But their mastery has extended to selling us whiffy cheese, water, and rather hard green apples. Different, ‘because they are French’.

But national heritage requires an agreed, defined and relevant set of national values expressed consistently over decades if it is to have any effect. Here in Africa, we don’t really have that, despite recent well-intentioned moves to create national brand values. (Most of which are mired in a lack of content and consensus.)

Unlike Germany or Japan, we do not have a credible reputation yet for ‘well made’ products. Unlike Israel, we are not widely seen as ‘pioneers in extreme conditions’. We lean heavily on the warm and exotic images our tourism assets can produce. But we all know, and so do overseas consumers, that our reality is far from a welcome drink with an umbrella in it.

I suspect that the future brand associations with Africa will come from our service sector (where thanks to ICT we are increasingly able to compete) and from our agricultural produce. The world is looking for food and water. How we deliver the promise of African-grown food could alter the world’s perception of us for the better.

You’ll note that I say African. That’s because I believe that African brands will not benefit from national associations, and that as soon as we can, we should shed them. Look at East Africa, where anything Kenyan is opposed on principle in Tanzania and receives a mixed reaction in Uganda. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say.

In regional travel in Africa, we all have to queue for hours at embassies and consulates and persuade suspicious customs and immigration officers that we have not arrived to wreak havoc on their country. We give the impression that foreigners are not as welcome as they could be. And by foreigners, I mean other Africans.

African brands, just as much as global brands, need to be culturally neutral. Global brands need to make this move to balance out the over-preponderance of Western values in their offerings. African brands need to do it to liberate themselves from limiting cross-border associations.

In focus groups, people from emerging markets wonder just how much of a welcome they are going to get on rich country airlines. I’ll bet a Ghanaian feels the same before he boards SAA or KQ.

So, African brands need to differentiate on their own merits, and not allow national pride to get in the way of a broader consumer franchise.

The author is Chairman, Young & Rubicam Brands Africa

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