by MarkLives (@marklives) Is adland embracing an African narrative? Are South African advertising agencies and brands embracing an authentically African narrative and aesthetic or do they continue to imitate American and European work? What can agencies, and brands, do to shift the paradigm towards embracing a unique creative identity that speaks to our African roots? Next in our panel to tackle this question is Jupiter‘s Michelle Beh.

Michelle Beh

Michelle BehMichelle Beh is the managing and strategy director at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town) (@JupiterCT). She has extensive experience working with global brands in developing their branding and advertising strategy for over 16 years across Asia-Pacific and South Africa on brands including include BMW, Budget Insurance, Burger King, HP, Hyundai, Mediclinic, Protea Hotels, SASKO (Pioneer Foods), Nokia, Singapore Telecommunications, Skip, Singapore Tourism Board, Unilever, Virgin Group, Windhoek Beer and Zurich Insurance.

First, there’s a need to clarify that the African narrative is not singular.

Africa is made up of 54 countries. All of them have their individual identities, unique historical backgrounds and complex socio-economic dynamics. Businesses have realised that they can’t take a model that works in one African country and apply that to another. Doing business across the continent is a lot more complex than any other continent. South Africa alone is made up of so many diverse groups: Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi, Sotho, Tswana, Shangaan-Tsonga, Venda, Coloured, Afrikaans and so on, with 11 national languages.

There are so many facets that brands have to consider when they want to create a unique identity that is true to and speaks to Africans.

Go back to the fundamentals — meaningful local insights

As there’s more competition giving consumers more options, brands need to work harder to connect with and convince their audience with distinctive and meaningful brand stories.

To have an authentic narrative that your audience react to, agencies and brands need to define their audience segment(s) clearly to be able to get to a truly unique insight. That takes time and sometimes courage because, to get so granular, you may have to exclude some segments.

There are universal human truths but it’s important to acknowledge that there are local and cultural nuances to those insights across different regions, countries and segments. For example, caring for family members is universal but, in some parts of Africa, that care generally includes financial responsibilities for the extended family members.

There are also unique local cultural insights that can’t be found elsewhere in the world, eg music and dancing is such a big part of cultural expression and African spirit that it’s used as a communications tool, even at difficult and painful times. There could also be product usage insights that are unique to the local audience, eg unsliced bread which is used in quarters for kota.

Beyond African language and look-and-feel

It was heartening to see the winners at Loeries this year, as they showcase a movement of going beyond just focusing on an Afrocentric look and feel.

It’s wonderful that African brands want to show their roots by using African talent, music, fashion and look and feel in their ads. However, that is just skimming the surface and doesn’t bring across local consumers’ frustrations and hopes, their fears and dreams.

Nando’s bravely called out the brands which were misappropriating the African culture without really connecting with real consumer insights. I have to say that’s a minority of brands, as more brands are going deeper and tapping into different sub-cultures and perspectives of African stories.

Metropolitan Life talked about death by using the After Tears party setting.

Coke interpreted its global “Share-a-Coke” campaign with The Phonetic Can.

Brands shouldn’t fear that they’re excluding other cultures by focusing on a specific culture. If they’re doing it in an authentic and real way, people will value the brand more for showing empathy and understanding. After all, we share many similar values, even if there are cultural differences.

Beyond cultural nuances

In an era where businesses are encouraged to be purpose-driven to win their consumers’ trust and confidence, there should be so many unique territories that brands can own to connect with their local audiences. We live in a country where people are grappling with so many issues on a daily basis. This is where brave brands can truly make a difference and get people to talk on their behalf, as some brands have done, such as Carling Black Label with its #NoExcuse call and the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Philips’ #ShaveToRemember activation. Both brands leveraged their brand/product in an authentic way to call for change and action.

However, beware if you jump onto the brand purpose bandwagon without actually walking the talk. It’s easy for brands to just produce an ad that creates awareness about an issue. Consumers expect brands to actually stand up and do something about the issue. It’s important to make sure that your brand has the right to speak about the cause and can realistically do something about it.

No, we don’t have an African narrative

We have more than one African narrative, and many more African stories that need to be told. There’s enough inspiration for marketers and agencies to build truly engaging connections. We just need to go back to the basics: how may the brand be meaningful in its local audience’s lives?

See also


MarkLives logoLaunched in 2016, “The Big Q” is a regular column on MarkLives in which we ask key advertising and marketing industry execs for their thoughts on relevant issues facing the industry. If you’d like to be part of our pool of panellists, please contact editor Herman Manson via email (2mark at marklives dot com) or Twitter (@marklives). Suggestions for questions are also welcomed.

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