Don’t rock the boat: Talk gently to mainstreamers

Chris Harrison
Chris Harrison

Millions of advertisements have been created all over the world during the past two centuries. But if you examine them you will find that there are a limited range of themes, each with its own styles and motifs.

The reason for this does not lie in the inability of advertiser to create fresh thoughts.  Instead these themes emerged to address common points of connection with the consumer. And you find that the best ads appeal to a specific enduring human value.

The theme that springs to mind first is the status advertisement – a glamorous, appeal to the human need to be noticed and admired. Brands that address this try to make you feel special, in with the in-crowd. They might lend give you charisma, which others will admire and desire. Fashion, cosmetics and accessories tend to tread this proven path.

People can broadly be divided into seven character types, each with distinct values and needs. It’s a knowledge that has enabled us to solve many of the problems of international advertising. You see it turns out that Nigerians are not so different from Namibians, as human beings.

There is one group that is difficult to advertise to. We call them mainstreamers. Coincidentally, they form the group that will give any brand a big consumer base. For this group sits in the very centre of any society. But by their very nature they are averse to new ideas. Over the years there have been many names for them – the Bourgeoisie, the Middle Majority. They are an important audience for any marketer. And never more so in Africa than now.

The African Development Bank has just published the results of a study that indicates that Africa’s middle class has now risen to 34 per cent of the total population. From around 23 per cent ten years ago. That’s 313 million people, all building their nests and exhibiting habitual, family—focused behaviours.

Naturally on a continent as staggeringly diverse as Africa, the size of this group varies widely from society to society. Liberia has the smallest proportion, with only 4 per cent of its population in this group. Societies with mainstreamers forming between 30 and 60 per cent of the population include Angola, Ghana and Kenya. The countries on our Mediterranean Coast are largely mainstream, with Tunisia topping the bill at over 80 per cent. If you know about Mainstreamers and their attitude to sudden change, this makes the events of the ‘Arab Summer’ all the more extraordinary. Mainstreamers will endure iniquity longer than any group. 

IF you want to connect with Mainstreamers, you need to understand that their enduring human value is the drive to create security for themselves and their loved ones. Not just steel bars on the windows, but emotional security and adequate physical comfort.

Security means avoiding risk. This means being part of something larger than yourself; a family, a home. Filling the role of mum or dad! All the ways of avoiding risk fit in like the pieces in a jigsaw:

• Being price conscious, watching the pennies, avoiding debt, making sacrifices, saving for the future – especially for the children.

• Blending in, conventional and conformist, feeling the same as everyone else, part of the crowd, part of the neighbourhood, part of a nation.

• Obeying the rules, avoiding confrontation. Order, organisation, a place for everything and everything in its place. The comfortable feeling of routine.

When I said Mainstreamers were a difficult group to advertise to, I wasn’t being strictly truthful. Africa is covered with ads that address this group. Emotion is their essential ingredient – human warmth. People are shown happy, well fed and …together.

Puzzles and ambiguity are turn-offs, but a good-natured sense of humour is appreciated. Brands that succeed here look familiar and reassuring. Often they maintain continuity with the past.

Which brings me to my real point. With mainstreamers you can perpetuate the success of an established brand quite easily. But they are buggers when it comes to launching a new brand.

To find out how a new brand might gain Mainstream acceptance, meet me here next week.

Chris Harrison is the chairman, Young & Rubicam Brands Africa


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