by Bogosi Motshegwa (@Thinkerneur) How important are brands in the role they play in our society and can they, in the modern South African context, afford to operate as if it’s 1995, the first anniversary of the rainbow nation? Strategists are well-empowered to give direction to ensure that brands play a far more important role than just selling.

Not business as usual

During apartheid, most brands carried on as usual, in itself worrying. Today, amid record unemployment, ever-increasing financial pressure, junk status and political crises, brands still carry on as if everything is normal —still worrying (think KPMG). It seems as if brands are less-inclined to partake in efforts that matter, because what matters is taxing, financially and otherwise. But all of this is still not an excuse.

I believe that brands have a huge role in ensuring that the country is in a better place, in every aspect imaginable. It can’t be business as usual.

It is mindboggling that a brand such as Virgin, which stands for a meaningful purpose —challenging the status quo — still will not offer free and safe transportation to its employees late at night.

Role of business

Brands operating here can’t operate as if the country is okay. We’re not. It’s great to be optimistic about the country —we must be optimists — but oblivious optimism may be detrimental as it sweeps the dirty realities under the carpet and smothers the air with a sickly sweet aerosol.

Brands need to be real about the realities of this country. Brands are part of our everyday lives. Yet brands and businesses also exploit people. Brands and businesses also exacerbate the levels of poverty and stifle progress in the country. Here are some examples:

In the fast-food world, employees I’ve engaged with exclaim how they are paid dismally. In one pizza restaurant, there was a young lady serving us. Being a typical strategist, I started engaging her about life in general. I was curious about her plans and why she was working, because she seemed so young. The industry is not desirable for many because of the low wages, and I was curious to hear her reasons. We spoke about her dreams and, without my prompting her, she divulged her salary. Which is, literally, nothing. Her only source of income? Tips offered by patrons. No tip; no income. How are people going to get out of the low quality of life and elevate themselves if brands continuously exploit people?

In one pharmaceutical retailer, after having a conversation with one of the tellers (I don’t know why but people tend to trust me with how much they earn), she told me that she earns less than R3000 a month. “So how much money do you make per day on your till?” I enquired. +R30 000, she responded, and this is on a bad day.

“Advertising is not the only way to communicate your brand or message” —LebogangMukansi, intergratedplanning director, Ogilvy

I totally agree with the above statement. The implication is that there is absolutely no reason that brands shouldn’t explore other ways to communicate, and no reason that they shouldn’t do so while doing and executing on brand-building efforts that leave people in a better place.

Fundamental challenges lie ahead

Big business makes huge profits but do the people who work for it benefit? If a small (compared to Shoprite) creative agency called FORT, which believes in shared prosperity, can give its employees some shares in the business, imagine what corporate SA could do?

Ford South Africa has been refusing to take responsibility for the loss of life that reportedly occurred due to product malfunction, instead taking the bereaved family from pillar to post and generating excuses not to be accountable.

If brands can’t do the basics of taking care of their employees and be accountable for product faults, how are they to do more for the country? It would seem that creating better communities is going beyond the call of duty, and businesses are fundamentally not structured in that manner.

Strategy should lead this

If strategy really is the compass of brand-building, then strategists have the responsibility to ensure that brands, agencies and client commit to more than just offering their core products and services. A healthy country economically is good for business and is sustainable.

Businesses have a bigger role to play than they realise. I’m not asking for brands to create or set-up more SBUs to deal with the country’s issues; on the contrary, I’m asking brands to use their core offerings more strategically in order to add value and make life better for all (I use “all” loosely; the point is that each company plays a significant role, so, accumulatively, businesses will make life better for all). If you think about it, all operate in spaces where there are inefficiencies from a social point of view.

According to Nielsen, at the end of 2016, SA’s top two advertisers spent just R5 990 335 shy of R1.5bn in advertising spend. [Note that the rate card value was reflected and discounts excluded — ed-at-large.]

Strategy and creative

Instead of putting so much financial investment into advertising, as strategists, let’s advise brands and clients to engage in meaningful efforts that help move people forward while building sustainable equities. Strategists are accountable for how brands operate and how they choose what matters to them. There’s absolutely no reason that brands can’t engage consumers or customers to promote their brands and still add value beyond their offerings.

We need to alter the lens through which we view business as a whole. We can absolutely do more. Doing good should be at the core, and the products or services on offer should be the conduit through which that purpose is carried and value is delivered.

Strategists and creative collectively should be flexible and brave in exploring routes that don’t just default to advertising. As professionals within this space, we need to be cognisant of the true power we hold. We’re not just communicators; we have the power to influence and change lives for the sustainable better.

It’s therefore our collective responsibility to ensure that we lead the way in achieving this business vision of helping build a sustainable and enriched country full of empowered citizens through the brands we manage. Let’s create brands that are truly important.


Bogosi MotshegwaBogosi Motshegwa (@Thinkerneur) truly believes that advertising can really change the world. Every single day he tries to prove this. He shares his thoughts on the industry and sometimes has unconventional views. Bogosi is a committee member of AMASA, an Advisory Council member and guest speaker at Vega, and also does speaker management at TEDxJohannesburg. He is currently a strategic planner at The Creative Counsel. He contributes the new monthly column, “Adnalysis”, which analyses adland from a strategist’s viewpoint, to

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