by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) Much is being written about the economic outlook for 2016, its effect on consumers, investor confidence, the political landscape and a shaky rand. For the most part, it’s gloomy and uninspiring, which is why I feel duty bound to remind you of the great opportunity we hold as communications professionals to show a counterpoint to the surge of negativity in South Africa.

We are not only custodians of brands, but storytellers, innovators and purveyors of an optimism that is sorely needed in our country.

Brand power

They say the night is darkest before the dawn, but that presupposes a natural cycle of prosperity guided by an unfaltering hand. I’m afraid our journey is going to take more elbow grease that that. Irrespective of the impact of global markets, we are called to spark our own flame and create our own success as South Africans.

As catalysts, brands have the power to not only inspire but to provide a grounding for entrepreneurial development and amplification. The question, then, is: “Should we all be suggesting social responsibility campaigns to our marketing clients?” That’s a positive start but the intent needs to run far deeper and become a part of the fabric of our local brands.

Good business

As business and brand become one, more marketers should consider our current circumstances as an inflection point from which to reorient the view of doing good as a cost of capitalist pursuits and BEE accreditations to a more holistic practice of ‘good business’. I’m talking sustainability, conscious consumption and uplifting initiatives that promote employment opportunities and social betterment.

It is beyond the reaches of government to create the economic conditions for prosperity alone, and indeed there has been a call upon the private sector for some time now to take a leadership role. As consumer confidence heads to an all-time low, we have the power, and the vehicle to steer the economy back — but people need to believe that there is hope. We need to tell them there is hope, to manifest it in our actions. That is what leadership is, and what brand leadership ought to be.

Consumer responsibility

People have a natural inclination to get feverish about bad news. Despairing thoughts on racism, the rand, political instability and violence fuel more dinner conversations than stories of courage and prosperity. The media plays its role, too, front page after front page. Bad news sells. But so does sex. And neither travel as fast as a great idea. As communications professionals, we should never underestimate the power that we yield, and the far-reaching consequences of our constructive actions.

There is, in all of us — as consumers, marketers, parents and countrymen — the inherent desire to do good and the ability to manifest change. The temptation in these circumstances, however, is to do good for ourselves and to safeguard our small inner circle from the realities that the majority of the population faces. Our responsibility is far greater than that; it is to acknowledge that it takes a village to raise a child, that our resources are under incredible strain and to act more broadly than self-interest.

A responsible challenge

This year will be a tough one; I am a realist in that respect. But as sailors ready themselves for a storm and shout exalted in the midst of the turmoil, so I challenge brands to think bigger and be the mouthpiece of change, challenge households to heed the calls for responsible consumption, and challenge business to lead us back to a South Africa we can truly be proud of.

We’ll play our part if you let us.


Tom FelsWith a decade of local and international experience in leading brand consulting, design, shopper marketing and integrated advertising roles, Tom Fels (@thomasfels) has gained a deeply relevant understanding of the dynamics of agencies. His skills are put to work daily as group managing director of Publicis Machine. He contributes the monthly “Ad Exec” column to MarkLives.

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