Brands: The New Relationships in Africa
“Darwin was wrong: it is not the fittest who survive, it is the fit-ins” – Anita Gordon and David Suzuki
Indeed. It’s not the fittest or the strongest who survive, but those organisms built to adapt, acclimatise and fit in. And it’s those organisations that take cognisance of the subtleties, nuances and not-so-subtle particulars of their new host environments – and modify appropriately – that will not only survive, but soar.
Africa, for most brands, is a new environment. But the recipe for success in Africa is not as straightforward as one hopes. Companies that adopt the cookie-cutter approach and merely mete out a tried ‘n tested blueprint de rigueur – as unveiled in South Africa and other Western markets – are not only severely short-sighted, but are most likely doomed to fail.
Appreciating that Africa doesn’t really exist, apart from a geographical appellation – to quote Polish explorer Ryszard Kapucinksi – is the first fundamental insight any brand needs to absorb. With its intricate mosaic of cultures, customs, languages and lore, Africa is “a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied and immensely rich cosmos”. And talking about entering the African market with a single game plan is tantamount to trying to win a basketball game with a baseball bat.
Brands are the new relationships
Perhaps one of the few postulations that one can make about this sprawling, variegated neighbourhood is that a rare golden thread running through many of these contrary communities is the honour of relationships in doing business.
And brands – successful brands at that – are the new relationships in Africa.
While it’s no great revelation that brands are essentially relationships, a base concept of classic brand theory, what should be appreciated in today’s fast evolving climate is that brands are replacing business relationships in Africa.
In provincial markets, relationships are the cornerstone of business. Based on generations-old kinships, founded on a history of years of business, you traded only with whom you knew and trusted. Smaller communities, in which there is a wariness of the new and expatriate, are particularly mindful of the ties that bind. With this in mind, penetrating these markets as an outsider is comparable to a Budweiser brewery setting up shop in a champagne vineyard. It’s bound to be interpreted as offensive and in bad taste. Little wonder South Africa is perceived as the new coloniser, bulldozing its way across unchartered territory wearing hard hats and gloves, with little respect for the deeply intricate, time-honoured customs and complexities that are in place there.
But as business expands beyond the reach of a specific community, some recognisable symbol is needed to represent those qualities. To the new customer, the brand is this symbol, based on an inherent trust in something reliable and familiar. And in “buy once, buy well” markets with limited disposable income, a brand has particularly more leverage. The brand is the new relationship.
It takes two to trust
But establishing sustainable relationships with your customers follows the same rules of courtship of any new relationship. It is built first and foremost upon trust. But you may need to create the conditions for trust. And as a result, your branding and marketing approach will need to adapt.
A case in point is Diamond Bank’s considered approach to banking the unbanked in Nigeria. Following the recent economic boom in this West African country, the Nigerian middle class has only recently started to establish itself. Until now, banks catered to the government and the wealthy, typically situated not at street level, but within imposing ivory towers of closed office environments.
As a result, the man on the street has not been readily exposed to the services of retail banking, and this unfamiliarity has endured as the common man with newfound money to bank still regards them as intimidating and inaccessible, preferring cash in hand.
Diamond Bank, a successful local financial house, has responded to this challenge of perception by conceiving a network of “mini-branches” that will perform basic transactions similar to what one would expect from an ATM. Staffed with only one or two tellers in office booths of a few square metres in size, Diamond Bank is steadily earning the trust of its customer base through a non-threatening, informal and approachable gesture. While being both less intimidating than a machine and economical in remote areas, this approach provides additional employment – a sustainable investment in the heart of the host country.
Give to get
And this introduces another key point fundamental to solid relationship-building with your intended market: In developed countries, social investment is a feel-good goodwill concern, something undertaken as an aside, for reputational reasons. In Africa, it is often a business necessity.
The context in which you find yourself may very well lack the necessary resources in which to conduct business, and your business many need to provide the infrastructure and education from the ground up in order to survive. However, the rewards from this investment stretch far beyond the Triple Bottom Line. From a brand perspective, the socially invested approach presents two valuable opportunities: to sustainably build the environment in which you operate, and – by extension – build the brand’s relationship with the community.
MTN is a much touted example of careful, considered and customised rollout, particular to its new host country. MTN’s vision is to be the leader in telecommunications in developing markets, and in the cellular operators’ “scramble for Africa”, MTN currently leads the race with almost 23,5-million subscribers in ten countries on the continent, with its sights set on Iran later this year. To date, they have achieved remarkable success in Africa with a commendable empowerment-focused approach.
With the new pay-off line being “Everywhere you go”, strategically coined to signal their intent to roll out throughout Africa, this telecomm-unications giant has endeavoured to establish itself across the continent, providing infrastructure where there was none before. Local infrastructure and facilities are upgraded wherever they go.
Recognising that they cannot necessarily go it alone in new markets, the organisation has actively strived to engage local partners in joint ventures, using local resources wherever possible. Skills and knowledge transfer are practiced among the communities in which they operate – with the aim of establishing technological self-sufficiency in the host country.
Speak your customer’s language
In an oral culture, ne’er a truer word has been spoken. “If markets are conversations, brands are relationships, built by dialogue.” A dialogue with communities in their native tongue.
Faced with a new paradigm, where there are few useable references to be drawn from our experience in other markets, the key is to work practically and in synergy with local environmental factors.
Consider Barclays’ strategy in Ghana. In conjunction with its traditional marketing approach, catering to the middle and upper income groups, the British bank aspired to appeal to a more inclusive demographic. It wisely discerned the grassroots culture on the ground first and then sought a local ally as a point of introduction. This opportunity presented itself in the form of the susu collectors – one of Africa’s earliest pioneers of banking services. For a small fee, the susus (numbering around 4000) have been providing a “stokvel” service to the Ghanian people for generations, personally gathering the income of their clients and returning it at the end of each month as a form of savings. Barclays tailored its product offering to the susus, providing them with a bank account especially created for these collectors to deposit their funds into, and also granted them loans of their own. This enables them to build their own capital and develop their businesses by allowing the susus to extend this service on to their customer base. Barclays is also providing capacity building training to the susus, as well as education on basic financial issues. A joint venture with local organisations, the programme was developed in association with the Ghana Cooperative Susu Collectors Association and the Ghana Microfinance Institutions Network, with the vision of laying the building blocks for a truly financial inclusive society – and a sustainable client base.
Locally, one might draw similar parallels with FNB. In South Africa, banks grew out of the formal sector and catered to the formal sector, initially overlooking the lower income group in which saving was not held in high regard. A first in the South African market, FNB observed the “tata ma chance” culture among the lower- to middle-income groups who would rather put R100 away and earn no interest for the chance of overnight riches. Based on market research on countries with similar low interest rate offerings, the Million a Month account is a hybrid of other products and seeks to attract the small change from “bras, jars and mattresses”, says Gusta Binikos, CEO for the scheme.
With a take-up of more than 1000 new accounts a day, according to Binikos, the market response has been overwhelming and FNB is saving itself a veritable fortune in interest outflows each month, as well as encouraging the nation to save. And the outcome is a brand that offers something closer to that market’s perception of money.
The new presents novel opportunity
A further opportunity to develop your brand’s relationship with its potential customers is to identify the unique opportunities that these unique markets offer, and respond in innovative and appropriate ways.
To illustrate, the road infrastructure in Lagos is notoriously underdeveloped and overpopulated, giving new meaning to the term “gridlock”. Travelling relatively small distances can literally take hours. As a result, the streets have risen to the occasion and catered to the needs of this captive audience, burgeoning into a noisy, cluttered marketplace.
Leading cellular companies have capitalised on brand identity to cut through this clutter, bringing their branded retail branches to the streets. Today, one can easily spot cellular employees from afar, adorned in colourful branded apparel and often sporting branded umbrellas that bob above the madding crowd, selling pay-as-you-go cards.
While brands may be more hesitant to adopt this marketing approach in more sophisticated markets, perhaps because of quality associations and other concerns, the astute marketer should always keep an eye out and an ear on the ground for relevant opportunities that can provide real solutions to real customer problems where possible. It should be recognised that the expectations of a brand can differ in different markets. Brands need to understand the customer relationship at different points and respond accordingly.
While it does not bear repeating that in this largely unchartered territory the social and infrastructural conditions are by no means optimal for a traditional marketing approach, the opportunities are significant – as
is the associated risk-premium. Adverse business realities, differing from territory to territory, can impact directly on the manner in which consumers interact with your brand – and ultimately on brand reputation. But they also provide opportunities: new ways in which consumers can interact with your brand. And a savvy brand strategist can identify opportunities to build solid, sustainable relationships.
As in all new relationships, first impressions do count. So it’s essential to get it right the first time.
Anthony Swart is the CEO of Enterprise IG, Africa Middle East.
He is a deeply rooted South African who is passionate about the success of our country in economic, social and political terms. He has been instrumental in the success of the company in markets across the African continent. His drive is to broaden the economic bridge developing between South Africa and the rest of Africa and to assist organisations to become truly Pan-African.