Zahra Mirza, head of client service at HKLM. Picture: SUPPLIED
Zahra Mirza, head of client service at HKLM. Picture: SUPPLIED

As the global economic slowdown continues to inhibit opportunities for expansion in home territories, more and more companies are looking to the rest of Africa as a potential growth market. The mistake too many of these brands make, particularly international ones, is to treat Africa as a homogenous whole. Africa does not have a single culture. A marketing strategy that works in one African market does not guarantee success in another, and to assume otherwise indicates a woeful ignorance of the continent and its diverse people.

The vibrant and colourful continent has a kaleidoscope of cultures, traditions and ethnic groups that respect many different values and beliefs. The people of Africa are defined not only by their innate traditional and prevailing social cultures but also by the broader political landscape within which they find themselves.

Consider, for example, how very different Zimbabwe’s financial and economic environment – with its currency problems, soaring inflation and difficult trading conditions – is to more affluent and economically and politically stable Botswana, which is characterised by one of the strongest currencies on the continent.

In the same vein, Ethiopia cannot be considered a similar market to that of Kenya from a brand and marketing perspective, despite the countries’ geographic proximity to each other.

Having made it my life’s work to understand the different nuances of the myriad cultures of various African countries, I have learned that it is these nuances that require different marketing approaches.

If you are branding or marketing in Ghana, it’s vital to think like Ghanaians: how they live, work and socialise; what resonates with them and what makes them tick. It is these insights that should inform how you market to them.

Branding and marketing in an African context is a complicated business, exacerbated by the fact that even within each country there are disparities. Societies are frequently divided along tribal lines, between rural and urban areas and along social divisions. In much the way that it would not be advisable to apply a branding strategy designed for rural KwaZulu-Natal to remote Limpopo, or ideas conceptualised for a Sandton populace to Sowetans, marketers need to be aware of the nuances that define individual African countries.

SA marketers are often accused of being arrogant and, like many international marketers, many adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to African markets. I’m not convinced, for instance, that Absa’s strategy of looking at the continent as a whole will be successful. African countries are neither an extension of SA, nor a homogenous whole.

The big take-out

A marketing strategy that works in one African market does not guarantee success in another African market, and to assume otherwise indicates a woeful ignorance of the continent and its diverse people.

Our experience of branding in the rest of Africa has taught us that the biggest mistake is to make assumptions. We might be the branding experts but we understand that clients know their country and their markets better than we do. Similarly, we’ve learned that it’s not possible to sit in Sandton and brand for Lagos or Kinshasa. You can’t fully understand a country or its people simply by reading about it. Branding involves more than just a logo; it’s a strategy that needs to be informed by personal insights gathered on the ground. Branding magic happens when these insights reflect not only the heart and soul of the client’s brand but also the very people you want to connect with.

Community engagement is imperative for the success of any branding initiative. To achieve a meaningful three-way collaboration that moves the branding experience beyond merely a marketing exercise, it’s critical that branding agencies simultaneously engage both the client and local communities. We have a responsibility to ignite the flame of socially conscious and purpose-driven brands, and lay the foundation for our clients to become good corporate citizens.

As brands increasingly embrace the rest of Africa, it must not be at the expense of the very diversity that makes the continent such an exciting place to begin with. Africa is made up of 54 different countries, and branding, marketing and communication agencies should start seeing it that way.

• Zahra Mirza is head of client service at HKLM.