by Alistair Mackay (@almackay) An obvious marketing objective of the Democratic Alliance is to shift perceptions around race. With a disproportionately high number of white supporters, the DA has long suffered from the ANC pigeonholing it as a party “for whites”. As the marketing wisdom goes, if you fail to position your brand, the competition will position it for you.

The DA has tried a number of things over the years to break this association in voters’ minds, including a comprehensive campaign last year to establish its own Struggle credentials.

Alistair MackayMost interesting, however, has been the party’s attempts to pick fights with the white right wing.

A tricky path to tread

The strategy is to get noticed for standing up for South Africa’s moderate, multiracial centre in the face of a conservative right, and to differentiate the party from ‘white’ parties such as the VF+ without alienating its own centrist white supporters. It is a tricky path to tread, but absolutely essential if it wants to remain relevant in modern SA politics.

The interventions had to be noticeable if they were to have any effect on the public consciousness. And so the party didn’t shy away from controversy.

Helen Zille declared in a speech in 2012 that the DA was “not a party for homophobes”, a brave thing to say in a country with such conservative views on the matter, and that sexists, racists and xenophobes are not welcome in its ranks.

Now-infamous poster

The DA Student Organisation (DASO) released a now-infamous poster depicting a multiracial couple that said, “In OUR future, you wouldn’t look twice”, implying, of course, that all other political parties would like to keep South Africans separate.

DASO posterApartheid is Over - DA poster
In early 2013, the DA Youth decided to march on Kleinfontein, a white ‘Afrikaner-only’ enclave just outside Pretoria. The DA’s posters, designed to drive home a strong message that the DA is against racial exclusivism by white people, read “Apartheid is over. Deal with it.” By picking a fight with the right, it hoped to show that it is a party of progressives.

The problem for the DA was social media. The poster went viral almost immediately, and it was taken completely out of context. Because of existing prejudices against the party, it was assumed that the poster was addressed at black South Africans, and intended as a callous and infuriating call for black South Africans to get over Apartheid and move on — a sentiment that is all too often still expressed by the right wing.

Huge home-goal

It’s difficult to imagine any other piece of communication scoring such a huge home-goal. It reinforced the very brand positioning it was trying to shatter.

It makes you realise how explosive and divisive communication can be in this country, without meaning to be.

Politics is particularly emotionally charged, but just the other day Ogilvy’s Feed a Child campaign was whipping the whole country up into a froth of anger and resentment. Woolworths got into trouble a few years ago for simply trying to follow employment equity law.

Where does that leave brand-builders?

It’s tempting to think the answer is to keep your head low and stay out of trouble. But brand strategy dictates that bold is better. Marketers who are afraid to take risks in their communications will simply create dull, forgettable brands.

Consumers want to connect with a strong point of view. Without that, your products are just commodities, playing it safe and trying to stand for everything but ending up standing for nothing.

In a hyper-sensitive market such as ours, the consequences of offending people are enormous. But the consequences of being bland are just as damaging for long-term brand growth. How can marketers get their brands noticed without getting them hated?

  • Think about the context. Does the message rely on a specific context or point of view, and does it lose or change meaning when spread through social media?
  • Think of every potential viewer. You’re creating an ad for your target market and your prioritised segments. It needs to connect with them. But imagine you’re someone very different to that target market for a second — how does the communication make you feel?
  • Steer clear of stereotypes — especially racial ones. It should be obvious but it doesn’t seem to be. Make your point without relying on stereotypes of any kind, even if the intention is light-hearted. Question and subvert any stereotypes in your thinking. And find human truths that unite people instead of polarising them.
  • Don’t pick fights with the powerless. If you’re using conflict to get noticed, use it to stand up for the underdog. Feed a Child went wrong because it degraded a black child and tapped into a narrative of oppression. Samsung, though, picks fights with Apple and generates nothing but laughs.

Get it right

Conflict and controversy can be excellent ways to get your brand noticed and reinforce your positioning. Having a strong point of view connects with your customers and makes it clear why people should care about your brand.

It won’t appeal to everyone, but great brands seldom do.

The trick is to be controversial without being insensitive. You’ll need a good grasp of history, power structures, sensitivities and context to get it right.

Alistair Mackay (@almackay) is marketing manager and head of content at Yellowwood, (@askYellowwood) a leading marketing strategy and brand development consultancy. He has experience both as a brand strategist and as the digital media manager for the Democratic Alliance, and believes that innovative, insightful and generous marketing is both good for business and social change in South Africa. He contributes the monthly “Brand Politics” column, exploring lessons brands can learn and apply from politics, to MarkLives.

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