by Tom Fels (@thomasfels) South Africa inhales and exhales in tones of gold and dust; for every mote of glittering light, there is news of subsidence and gloom. The ideal of an African Renaissance, “the overcoming of challenges confronting the continent to achieve cultural, scientific, and economic renewal”, that was so firmly rooted in the post-apartheid leadership narrative of the country, seems today to be challenged in its own authenticity. The dialogue is clearly shifting — are brands?

I wrote earlier in the year about the outlook of 2016; we were fresh out of Nenegate, a collapsed rand and the first round of #FeesMustFall protests. My call was for the private sector to act with more decisive responsibility in their work for good and in the application of their philosophies, given the powerful mouthpiece they yield.

The year, as predicted, has unfolded unpredictably.

We are back in the throw of a political crisis at the Treasury, our president is (still) under fire, and growth is meagre at best. This is our new normal.

Absent voices

In the onslaught of social commentary, news commentary and personal commentary, I couldn’t help but notice absent voices that don’t seem to have a massive opinion — those of our national brands. Proud, rooted in heritage, used and loved every day, but silent as a statue.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect brands to support upheaval and politicking — or vehemently criticise it — but, in an age when we are desperately seeking brand resonance as marketers, is the best approach to consistently depict the well-trodden path of success and aspiration to a population who is struck with harsher realities of existence?

A few brands have poked satirically or euphemistically at the current state of affairs in a way that makes them a part of the conversation — a mouthpiece for people’s sentiment, perhaps, but not of substance or of action.

Indeed, more so than taking a stance, it is for brands to act in a way that provides remedial impact for those they serve. Dove opens our eyes to real beauty, Always inspires young women’s confidence and Patagonia uses business to inspire and implement solutions to our environmental crisis.

Working for and against

As brands, what are you working against? What do you stand for, and against?

Are you fed up with security? Create or support a community watch. Frustrated by the lack of activities available to the youth? Link willing pupils and coaches to a sports clinic or introduce a new grassroots initiative. Don’t like the protesting students? Democratise learning through online platforms, fund bursaries, support your staff’s children to learn and grow, change education itself.

Locally, Outsurance took an everyday commuting frustration and turned it into a public service through its Outsurance Pointsmen (in partnership with the city metros), in the process likely diminishing the number of claims it receives from accidents in known hotspots. This good citizenship is not advertising; it’s more powerful than advertising as it plays a vital part of many people’s daily routine.

Today’s brand managers have as much a responsibility to act as custodians of their assets as they do to grow their value. So take a hard look at what issues are affecting your consumers and where your brand could intersect with that experience to create relevant value. Those that do will be forging the likelihood of sustained prosperity as their competitors sit idly by and ‘wait for the market to turn’. More than likely, it will turn away from them rather than come home to roost.

Time will reward those that act. Your time starts now.


Tom Fels 2016With 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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