Boniswa Pezisa, group CEO of BBDO South Africa. Picture: SUPPLIED
Boniswa Pezisa, group CEO of BBDO South Africa. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s often been said that SA is the launch pad to the rest of the continent. And, just as SA is a melting pot of different cultures, challenges and beliefs, so every country in Africa has its own culture and way of doing things. Seeing Africans – and Africa – as a bottomless sea of sameness is the biggest mistake a marketer can make.

“The only way to grasp that Africa is not just one homogenous country is to leave your desk and travel northwards; to interact with people in their home countries; and to listen to the unique challenges, hopes and aspirations that guide their decisions.” This was the starting point for a talk on conducting business in SA and Africa that Net#Work BBDO’s Boniswa Pezisa and Gau Narayanan presented to an MBA class at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. 

Pezisa believes we are in “the era of consumer insights, research and the data”. And when it comes to seeing SA as a launch pad to Africa, one need only look at the conglomeration of different people and cultures in the country to know that it is a place where brands can meet many cultures and different people and try anything.

“SA is a country where you will find state-of-the-art infrastructure in one place, and nothing at all in another – massive upmarket shopping malls versus rural spaces with no amenities. Simply listen to the languages around you – if you needed research into a Congolese market, you could round up a group of Congolese with ease. Ethiopian? You would find them. It is, quite literally, the richness of Africa, down south,” she says.

However, it’s also important to consider that what works in Soweto may fail dismally in Sebokeng.

But what does this have to do with brand-building in Africa?  Research and data can only take you so far, Pezisa says. After that, it’s about “getting off your butt and going out there to engage consumers and [gather] insights, observe how people live and get into the nitty-gritty of what makes them tick. We’ve become extremely lazy, and we’ve forgotten how important it is to tap into the emotional aspects of humans”.

The big take-out:

Seeing Africans as a homogenous group of consumers is the biggest mistake a marketer can make. If you want to really understand a certain market, go out there, talk to people and observe their behaviour.

There is no better research than talking to people to understand who they are. Observe them, film them even – people are very happy to share if they believe their opinions are valued, says Pezisa.

Social media also provides an ideal vehicle for marketers, who can come to understand their consumers through ethnographic studies. Tap into WhatsApp communities or social media groups and you’ll gain valuable insights. Or at least understand what technology works best in certain markets.

Net#Work BBDO recently ran a successful campaign for feminine hygiene brand Libresse that centred primarily around email. While email is certainly not the most fashionable medium available to advertisers, it worked well for the product in the SA market, where feminine health care is often seen as a taboo topic. The campaign was a major success, resulting in Libresse moving marketing share up one notch, from five to four.

Though there will always be commonalities between African markets, Pezisa says valuable insights are created when marketers dig deeper to find what differentiates them from each other. “There will always be sameness – don’t duplicate that – but get out there and find what is new,” she advises.