As 2013 progresses, Africa’s relationship with the motor car has gone a long way beyond utility. Twenty years ago, the Peugeot was the ubiquitous middle-class car, the Toyota Land Cruiser pick-up, the workhorse, while the Mercedes was the car of status, coining the phrase wabenzi to describe the continent’s elite.
Brand choice widened slowly in the 1980s and 90s, and individual dealerships tempted their markets with BMW, Volkswagen, Nissan, Volvo and Skoda. Some brands stayed, many more faded away, only to reappear for another short run.
The big trading houses like French CFAO and the biggest manufacturers like GM and Toyota built scale and stability, offering wider ranges of vehicles to suit different pockets and needs.
But from a consumer point of view, there were few deals to be had. Service was ‘take it or leave it’ and genuine spare parts were expensive. Across the continent, the motor retail trade behaved in a way that pushed consumers away. They didn’t see it because they were in the showroom looking out, not in the market looking in.
Then came the second-hand, imported-car revolution. Suddenly, the roadsides were lined with small motor dealers buying stock online from Dubai, Singapore and Japan and, selling them to a grateful motoring public. That revolution wasn’t about utility. Okay, the people wanted to be mobile, but they wanted more than that. They wanted to have what every other motorist in the world had. An emotional relationship with a car.
Desire, lust and envy began to play a role. And African motorists now had a broader emotional reaction to driving. Pride of ownership. Delight at performance. A sense of freedom and fun.
The car you drive in Africa now says plenty about you, your status and your attitude to life.
From the Toyota Corolla, with matt black paint, alloys and throaty pipes for our young bucks, to the highly-polished and coveted middle-class Nirvana of a nearly new Prado. Its air-freshened interior replete with a box of tissues and brocaded cushions.
Car brands are used to define social types in conversation. Recently, I overheard some ladies cautioning colleagues against dating men from a particular region. It is a place where men dress well, speak better, but pay passing attention to their romantic commitments.
“Don’t go out with a guy from there, girl. You’ll get your 7 Series, but you’ll have to sleep in it,” they yelled.
So, brand choice in motor cars now involves a huge amount of emotion and subjectivity. From body shape and accessories, to personalised paint jobs.
And there’s a huge opportunity in providing services to keep the beloved car looking nice. What with bad roads…And you know, when you write off a front end, you deal with it. But a dent the size of a dinner plate can spoil your year.
The good news, however, is that a third wave of development is already here. The biggest manufacturers on the planet, Toyota and General Motors, are increasing investment in assembly plants and wholly-owned service centres and showrooms instead of dealers. In easier finance and, yes, even in second-hand car auctions with warranty offerings. Other eastern brands, like Chery, are making their first appearance and plan to be properly supported franchises, not exploratory moves.
So the days of the tradition motor ads are coming to an end. You know, the one with a picture of a car and a price on it. Implication, come and get it, because we are not coming to get you.
Africa, get ready for direct marketing, events and offers, plus choice and service. Most of all, get ready for motor brands acting like real brands.
The writer is a marketing and advertising
specialist based in Nairobi-Kenya.