by Alistair Mackay (@almackay) Take a look at the election posters currently hugging lamp-posts across the country and it’s easy to spot a theme:

  • Alistair MackayTogether We Move South Africa Forward.
  • Together for Change. Together for Jobs.

The sentiments of South Africa’s two largest political parties are echoed by other parties and government brands as well: AgangSA promises to “build a winning South Africa together,” the Western Cape is “better together” and the City of Cape Town is now all about “making progress possible, together.”*

Makes sense

In politics, it makes sense for brands to celebrate community and togetherness: political parties have the hard job of uniting South Africa’s diverse people so that they can build a majority in order to govern. But there is more to this than political necessity.

We have had our fair share of divisive political characters on the left and on the right, too, but (with the possible exception of the EFF, whose support remains to be seen in the 7 May 2014 elections) their support largely fizzled out. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the DA struggled to gain real support until it dropped its adversarial stance on politics. As cheesy as it sounds, South Africans believe in togetherness.

The adherence of our key political players to the theme of togetherness points to the fact that the South African dream is alive and well. We are a nation founded on the ideal of reconciliation, and that ideal resonates with us to this day.

Pushing the envelope

Castle found its way into our hearts by pushing the envelope of racial integration. The iconic SA beer is known and loved by all for its early portrayals of multiracial friendships and good times — around the braai or watching sport.

posters 1Nando’s brings us together by making us laugh at ourselves, rather than at each other. It is particularly skilled at building a common sense of SA community through light-hearted humour.

And many of Coca-Cola’s most successful campaigns in SA have been about crossing divides, helping each other out and sparking new friendships.

It’s important to take stock of that in this current climate of protest and anger. Despite our terrible and persistent inequality, we believe we can solve our problems together and that the goal of creating a united and fair society is worthwhile and achievable.

Bring us together

What does that have to do with brand-building? Most obviously, it means we feel inspired and motivated by brands that help bring us together.

There are huge opportunities for brands to capture some of that glow that brands such as Castle had in the 1990s — and not just through television advertising but through marketing that physically brings people together.

What is the 2014 version of advertising that crosses racial divides? How about music festivals that mix musical genres and crowds? How about brand-sponsored life-swap reality shows? How about brands creating volunteer networks and campaigns that encourage and facilitate consumers to help out in poorer communities?

Segmentation strategy is difficult

It also means that segmentation strategy in SA is difficult. We don’t like to be treated differently, and we recoil from brands that pick up on any differences. That creates a tension for marketers. On one hand, they need to make their marketing tailored and relevant to very different kinds of people. On the other hand, they can’t present that tailored approach as definitive of any particular group of people.

A recent campaign by KFC generated fierce debate because of exactly this. The ad told the story of a SA school girl in Thailand, feeling overwhelmed by the strangeness of Thai culture and customs, who made a friend and connected over some KFC — which ‘tastes like home.’

While it is clear this ad is trying to show that KFC is a classic, nostalgic and well-loved food for South Africans, it came across as racial stereotyping to some.

Tough tightrope to walk

It is a tough tightrope to walk. If KFC did not feature predominantly black people in its advertising, it would be irrelevant to modern SA and its own consumers. The brand has done an admirable job over the years in trying to get closer to its consumers and to tell stories from their perspective — tailored and relevant. But the SA dislike for being singled out still rears its head.

There is a way out of this mess, and it isn’t just multiracial, feel-good montages. Marketing that only speaks to commonalities across all of SA will get bland quite quickly.

But segmentations need to have a strongly psychographic slant. Tailor your campaigns and your marketing to mind-sets, beliefs and expectations. And hope, like hell, that each customer segment has a cross-section of SA’s demographics in it.

Then it’s possible to build a sense of togetherness without losing all the specifics that give marketing its relevance.

*Disclaimer: a joint venture of Yellowwood and King James won the City of Cape Town account in December 2013 and developed this payoff line for the City.

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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