by Alistair Mackay (@almackay) People have been prophesising a split in the African National Congress (ANC) for as long as I can remember. It’s too much of a “broad church”, they say, to be able to continue to function coherently. There are communists in the ANC alliance (SACP), socialists and labour (COSATU), capitalists and liberals (Ramaphosa; the NDP) and African nationalists.

These conflicting ideologies and the camps that believe in them are at war within the ANC, and this power struggle results in official party positions and policies that seem confused and directionless, but are really just a patchwork of compromises.

megaphoneThis problem isn’t confined to the ANC. In its own way, the official opposition is also a “broad church”.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) brands itself as liberal, broadly speaking, but it includes hard-core free-market neoliberals, social liberals, social democrats from when it absorbed the ID, and, though it hates to admit it, ex-Nats.

It’s the nature of politics in a country as diverse as ours that parties will have to gloss over differences in ideology in order to build a majority. Politicians become experts at appeasing all the various camps that support them, even when those camps disagree.

It’s for this reason that politicians earn shady reputations for speaking at length without actually saying anything. It makes clear strategic direction almost impossible.

One clear brand ideology

In the private sector, this condition is fatal for a business or brand. Consumers have much more choice than they do in the political arena, and so they will ignore the vague, catch-all brands and pay attention to those that have a clear, focused and relevant value proposition. You can’t be all things to all people.

The temptation to try and appeal to everyone is strong. Every marketing director and CEO would like to have more customers. It’s great for sales to have every LSM and every kind of customer buying your products and services. The problem is — it’s impossible. Building a powerful brand requires focus, not distraction. Brands can only have one ideology, not many.

Private sector brands that have attempted to be “broad churches” have failed spectacularly. One of the most famous failures was BIC.

Known primarily for its ballpoint pens, but having also been successful with disposable razors and lighters, BIC attempted to launch a range of disposable underwear for women. Its logic was that the BIC brand is known for ‘disposability’ and that this would work across any category.

It didn’t.

Restaurant chains, on the one hand, have attempted to broaden their appeal to the emerging South African middle class by removing the pricier items from their menus in Soweto, for example. This results in customers feeling insulted, rather than included.

Woolworths, on the other hand, has broadened its appeal to new markets while keeping its ‘brand ideology’ of quality sharply in focus. Its value offerings are meal-combinations and smart marketing ideas, rather than a reduction in quality or price.

The power of ‘No’

Brand strategy requires making tough choices. It requires understanding that your brand can’t stand for everything, and it can’t appeal to everyone.

Core to brand strategy is focusing on what you want your business to be known for and the steps for making that happen. The part that people don’t talk about is how it also requires giving things up that don’t build that reputation, deciding on what you won’t do, and don’t want to be known for.

Without saying ‘no’ to some things, there is no strategy and no clear differentiation to your brand.

  • No, we won’t target those consumers
  • No, we don’t believe in that
  • No, that medium / message / trend / extension isn’t right for this brand
  • No, we won’t offer those kinds of products and services with this brand

A strong brand is known for one or two key things. Marketers may be tempted to build a brand that is known for ALL of the good things: fast and cheap and sexy and reliable and affordable and happy. In the end, though, that just dilutes the message, blurs the focus and results in generic marketing that consumers ignore or forget.

You need to put your stake in the ground and decide on the key thing you want to be known for and say ‘no’ to all the rest.

It feels safer to cover all the bases, but there’s nothing safe about a “broad church” brand with competing ideologies. It’s almost certain to fail.

Alistair MackayAlistair 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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