Can African brands excite a global audience?

Updated on 24 October 2014

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Female entrepreneurs not prospering in Africa - studyI majored in classical archaeology, and during my archaeology studies I studied a Roman philosopher named Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder was a powerful member of Roman society, who counted the Roman emperor Vespasian as a personal friend.

During the time of Pliny the Elder, Rome was the most powerful society on earth. They had conquered vast areas of land and imposed their Roman branded lifestyle on people. As a thought leader, Pliny the Elder had some strong views and is famous for the following line about Africa: “ex Africa semper aliquid novi.” This line translate as “There is always something new coming out of Africa.” This is such a powerful statement! A major thought leader in the most powerful society on earth was surprised and amazed by the African continent and it’s ability to surprise.

Today, we are so far removed from those times and if we had to state “There is always something new coming out of Africa” on the global stage, the first thoughts that spring to the mind of people are things like Ebola, dictators and corruption. Despite the very apparent, media-led afro-pessimism that exists, we need to realise that South Africa, and Africa as a continent, has the ability to develop brands that excite a global audience.

There are four areas that we should start with in this brand development journey:

Economic branding

Earlier this year, Millward Brown released its Brandz Top 100 Survey results that had some of the world’s most valuable brands. Africa had a single representative, MTN, which was ranked at 93. This meant that MTN was considered more valuable than brands such as Prada and the powerful Bank of America.

“We tend to fragment our brands and tend not to support other African brand”

MTN’s presence on this survey proves that we can compete with the best and make our mark on the global stage but we also have to be aware of the glaring fact – why is there only one African brand on a global brand survey? If we had to compare this to the equally prestigious Interbrand Best Global Brands 2013 then they do not even include an African brand in their rankings.

On an economic level, we still lag our counterparts on every other continent. A significant factor is that we tend to fragment our brands and tend not to support other African brands. There are very few Pan-African brands (MTN is one of them). If we want to truly compete with major global brands we have to realise that strong South African, Nigerian or Kenyan brands don’t help us as a continent. When we start seeing the emergence of strong Pan-African brands then can we truly be on a part to be economically competitive with the major international participants.

Political branding

This related to the ability of a country to make investors feel secure. This is important as it gives investors hope that a country has the ability safeguard their investment. The brand Nelson Mandela was a strong driver of driving investment and interest on a global stage.

Madiba’s brand power acted as the catalyst to get investment into the country and energised global investors to move their thinking away from typical afro-pessimistic views of leadership on the continent. Madiba’s legacy is still strong but we have to be aware that many global investors believe that Africa and corruption are regular bedfellows.

We need to energise our political brand to both make investors feel secure and excited.

One of our BRICs partners recently found a very innovative way to re-energise their flagging political brand. In the past month India launched their “Make in India” campaign in the US. This was profound as it is not the usual “Alive with possibilities” route, but a call to action telling global companies to come manufacture in India as well as reminding people within their borders to create an environment conducive to international business. Our political brands need to be strong calls to action that are bold and aggressive if we want to be noticed on the global stage.

“The South African brand still carries a strong global allure”

Cultural branding

This relates to how the world views the culture and values of a society. Madiba became part of the culture and value system of South Africa. His example was powerful in getting people to look to our country and Africa in general.

We unfortunately have two high-profile murder cases on the global stage linked to South Africa. Instances like these reinforce negative stereotypes in foreign minds but artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo (multiple Grammy winners) and Charlize Theron (Oscar winner) help add cultural brand value. Their wins and subsequent successes help highlight the strength of our artistic ability.

The warm African culture is also a strong winner in our tourism industry and is a strength that we have been wise to highlight in our international campaigns.

 Geographic branding

Tourism is key to helping expose our brand to a global audience. Most tourists come to South Africa in search of a geographic-specific experience. South Africa has some key strengths here thanks to areas such as Cape Town and the Kruger National Park which both carry strong equity on the global tourism circuit. The key risk faced here is that we need to develop other areas to ensure that we are constantly relevant in a global space. Major tourist hubs such as the USA, Italy and France have developed multiple hubs within their borders to both promote longer stays and repeat visits.

The South African brand still carries a strong global allure and to ensure that we remain a relevant player on the global stage, we need to develop a holistic brand strategy that incorporates our economic, political, cultural and geographic brand attributes. If we are able to align these four pillars, then Pliny the Elders words will be as true today as they were two thousand years ago.

About the author: Preetesh Sewraj is the CEO & Chief Innovation Analyst at Product of the Year South Africa. He has worked with some of South Africa’s biggest companies. From advertising, social media and branding and has appeared on various media channels. Follow him on Twitter @ ipreetesh.

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