Battle of the brands about to begin in Africa

The advertising industry in South Africa is far more advanced than it is elsewhere in Africa. “We have a long tradition of advertising here and this country worked hard to box above its weight in the rest of the world.” He cites the example of Hunt Lascaris, which, from small beginnings, became not only a top agency in South Africa but internationally.

But, he says, the advertising environment in other African countries is changing. “Over the past few years, advertising in Africa has gathered momentum, the messaging is getting sharper and the production quality is getting a whole lot better. I have seen real strides being made in the industry. Some countries are much more sophisticated than others, for example Kenya where there has been a long tradition of advertising; whereas West Africa is now playing catch up. But it can be difficult to draw skilled people into the industry because it is quite intangible. It’s not like becoming a lawyer or a doctor,” notes De Kock.

Thinking locally

“You are not dealing with homogenous societies within regions, or even within countries. Foreigners have tended to regard Africa as one country rather than acknowledging the many differences in nationalities, cultures, religion and languages. The worst thing you can do when you are trying to sell something to people is to offend them by being culturally insensitive.”

The advertising industry reflects, in part, the society in which it operates. “This means you can’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach,” says De Kock. “If you want to be relevant, you have to spend money making adverts that are particular to a market and that means you cannot re-use material that has been made for other markets. You have to invest in understanding your consumers to know what drives them and what visual language would appeal to them.”

“You need to pay attention to the cultural differences between North, East, West and Southern Africa. There are also local differences that need to be taken into account, even within countries, when developing advertising campaigns. Nigeria, for example, has more than 250 ethnic groups while in East Africa, where Swahili is widely spoken, there are variations of the language between countries such as Kenya and Tanzania.”

“You can speak to people in official languages such as English but if you really want to resonate with markets you should try to build in the local languages and regional peculiarities. Humour is something that needs to be handled carefully – what is funny in one market may not be funny in another.”

“Religious sensitivities also have to be taken into account. In many countries we would think nothing of showing men and women in bathing costumes on a beach together. But this would be a real problem in countries in North Africa for example. And even within countries you need to consider these issues because of religious diversity.”

De Kock says such factors make it crucial that multinationals operating in Africa truly understand the markets they are trying to reach. In the past, market information has been difficult to find. However, recently market research firms have proliferated, servicing companies that are competing for advantage in a crowded marketplace. “But, at the end of the day, it really helps to have a presence on the ground. No one knows a market better than someone who lives in it.”

Although he believes South African companies have a big role to play on the continent, “people from the rest of Africa have a lot to teach us about entrepreneurship. If you drive through African cities late at night, you will see many entrepreneurs hard at work, with their workplaces lit only by candles or torchlight. The sense of energy across the continent is massive, particularly in East and West Africa. Nobody stands still. They are always finding ways to make money.”

“There is no doubt things are moving and, with the developed world in trouble, investors no longer regard Africa as being so risky. There is almost a sense that if you can lose your shirt on Wall Street, Africa seems quite tame. In fact, if you’re not doing business in Africa already, you’ve possibly missed the boat.”

This article is an extract from Dianna Games’s book, Business in Africa: Corporate Insights (published by Penguin Books, September 2012).

Available at all leading book stores – R260 (US$31.60).

Dianna Games is the CEO of Africa @ Work, a South African-based company that aims to facilitate and improve business in Africa through the provision of research, information and networking opportunities. She is also a columnist for Business Day.