We laugh about our roads in Africa. We swap stories about near misses and narrow escapes. We rubberneck at accident sites. Our newspapers record body counts and show uncensored pictures of mashed bodywork and mangled body parts.
And while we live with this as part of daily life, our more active Governments press ahead with ever more ambitious plans to upgrade our infrastructure. Good for them, and good for us too in the long term.
The transition can be somewhat terrifying however. Outside Nairobi we have highways being constructed that would put California to shame, but while they are being constructed you would scarcely believe the mayhem. Eight lanes shrink to one in a 500m stretch.
No road markings and signs in Chinese English add to the sport. Then Kenyans need only the slightest blockage to provoke a mass crossing of carriageways, a zigzagging up verges, and a pointing of bonnets in every direction you can imagine. Grand Theft Auto has nothing on this.
But the fact is that roads kill more Africans than anything else on this Continent. More than Malaria; more than AIDS. From the quietly disciplined tarmac of Rwandan highways to the gridlock that is greater Lagos, the body count is mounting.
So while this continues, and while our leaders plan multi-lane elevated highways (wait for the accidents on those), I think there is an opportunity for brands to help out.
First of all, brands are great communicators. And the people who build brands consider their target audiences (in this case groups most at risk on the road) look for insights (attitudes to road use, vehicle serviceability, actually qualifying for a driving licence) and develop clear messaging.
They then look for professional advice on how to communicate those messages with impact. Pardon the pun.
People who authorise and participate in road building programmes are, by contrast, weak communicators. At the top level they are the kind of people who say; ‘ Ghanaians should be aware of the prevailing risk of road accidents.’
At the middle level they put up signs that say: ‘No left turn where it used to be.’ And at the operational level they wave coloured flags at the competing torrents of traffic and then run away when an accident happens.
Secondly, brands and marketer are all about results. They define an objective; break it down into manageable activities, and relevant find ways to measure the impact of those activities.
A marketer would be unlikely to set as his target the percentage of ECOWAS delegates who truly believe that concrete actions have been put in place to moderate the affliction of road mortality.
He would instead perhaps aim to reduce pedestrian deaths on the Mombasa to Kampala corridor by 30% over 3 years.
Thirdly, brands in Africa need to demonstrate a genuine involvement that betters the lives of their consumers. Particularly the brands arriving in haste - from China and Brazil, France and America.
So, which brands should? Well, obvious candidates are the motor vehicle, insurance and petroleum companies. I’m aware of Yamaha developing motorcycle skills programmes in Kenya, and Total Petroleum making a long-term commitment to safety on Africa’s road transport corridors.
But there’s no reason why Banks and mobile phone companies can’t help. In fact any brand whose DNA is about helping lift customers out of their present circumstance.
And how should we go about it? Well we should make as much use as we can of ambient media. The messaging opportunities that line the roadsides. The menus at fast food joints, the exit ramps at filling stations. We should harness the power of mobile digital as it sweeps the Continent.
But more than channels what is needed is long-term consistency of message. Africa is littered with the torn posters and faded metal signs of once-proud individual road safety campaigns. Look on these works, ye mighty and despair.
Let’s not wait until road mortality deprives marketers of market opportunities. Partnerships created by companies who understand brands could fast track road safety success in Africa. First up, how about a toothpaste brand to paint nice, bright, confident white lines on the Thika highway?
The Author is the Chairman Young & Rubicam Brands Africa
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