Homegrown: Lessons from the roadside
by Lynne Gordon (@lynne_gordon) Drive the back roads of Limpopo, walk the beaten sidewalks of Orlando West, or explore the crowded pavements of Joburg City; they’re everywhere — small homegrown businesses that pop up along the roadside of busy life in Mzansi.
The gazebo barber crafting a chiskop powered by his roadside generator, the butchery in an out-of-the-way dorp proudly claiming “SA’s best wors”, and the fruit vendor who promises “best deals on naartjies” — they are all celebrations of the person who sees a need, harnesses her entrepreneurial spirit, and opens the doors on opportunity. And, for the marketer, closer inspection reveals lessons from the roadside that are as relevant in the boardroom as they are in the backstreets.
The fight for growth
Big brands know what it is to battle for growth. In tough categories, on cluttered retail shelves, in a rapidly changing consumer landscape, brands vie for the strategic advantage of accelerating trial, growth in consumption, or the elusive word-of-mouth endorsement. Marketers craft brand plans, looking for the holy grail of increased return-on-investment.
And, whether method or magic, marketing is increasingly under pressure to show its worth in commercial return, creating a real impact for growth.
But it’s the ‘little people’ — the one-person shops on the roadside of the everyday — whose livelihood truly depends upon attracting the next consumer, upon closing every sale. Unschooled in the Art & Science of Marketing, they face the street with all the challenges of brand-building — fighting the battles of generating awareness, trial and consumption without the tools of the marketer.
Their battleground is not dissimilar to those of the corporate megabrand: cluttered marketplaces and a tough economy abound. Trained by necessity and hard yards, these are the homegrown marketers of the South African roadside.
Look to the farm-stall owner promising “Fresh strawberries in 1km!”, followed shortly by “Farm stall 500m” and finally “STRAWBERRIES!” — he understands the power of driving awareness and breaking through with sign-posting.
Watch for the township salon proudly displaying the photo of the local celeb coifed by its top stylist — it ‘gets’ endorsement and brand aspiration.
The local shebeen owner, branded inside and out by Carling Black Label, knows how to maximise brand partnerships.
Lessons for marketers
Ask a small business owner about her success, and she’ll tell you a few things about marketing. It may not be couched in the language of the marketer, but her lessons are clear:
- Know your consumer. The person who runs the roadside shisanyama is an ethnographer. The small salon owner is a trend-hunter. They know their consumer’s unmet needs and daily habits. They often live side by side with their customers, and understanding what consumers want and at what price is second nature.
They know how to command a premium by providing convenience, quality or other superior benefits. Their thinking must start with real needs and opportunities because there is nothing else that matters more.
For the trained marketer, the opportunity is to leave the safety of the desk in favour of the street, to replace hypothesis with insight, to get real about meeting consumers in their own world.
- Focus on a simple and compelling benefit. Most street-side businesses offer refreshingly simple products and solutions. Why? Because their resources to communicate are limited, because focus maximises impact at the outset, and because costs are generally lower offering a single benefit.
As an opportunity is fully leveraged and a need met, local entrepreneurs diversify with speed and agility but, at first, focus pays.
In tough markets, brands often need a reminder to hone in on single-minded promises of real benefit to consumers, before fragmenting their message and diluting impact and returns.
- Maximise communities. The spaza owner who offers credit to the homes on his street knows the power of building trust and recommendation in his local community.
The salon of the local neighbourhood diva is frequented by all her friends, and she offers the best service to her regulars who come in each month to have their hair styled.
The kasi funeral director is a master networker.
Brands and businesses are built upon relationships with consumers and, in an increasingly networked world, maximising communities is the core domain of marketers.
Part natural curiousity and part deep entrepreneurial desire for growth, homegrown brand-building distils the essence of great marketing. Born out of the need to deliver growth, these are commercial marketers at their best.
So hats off to the homegrown marketers — may we take the lessons from the roadside into the brand plan of the boardroom!
Lynne Gordon (@lynne_gordon) is the managing director at strategic marketing consultancy Added Value. She learned marketing on-the-job and is fascinated by the streets of South Africa, where small entrepreneurs — untrained as marketers — apply the art and science of branding to their businesses.
Her monthly MarkLives column, “Homegrown”, will explore everyday businesses and the lessons corporate marketers can learn from the streets of Mzansi. Share your own observations, photos and examples of marketing from SA’s roadside with @lynne_gordon on Twitter.
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