Brand Africa — I’m a believer

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My work in the media involves attending a fair number of seminars, workshops and conferences and perhaps because these events often involve politicians, one generally walks away with the feeling that nothing much has changed and very little has been accomplished.

Not so last week! On Friday I attended an advertising workshop that reminded me why I love what I do, that left me charged with positive energy, and that underlined the many compelling reasons why I choose to believe in Africa.

The presenter of this workshop was the celebrated Thebe Ikalafeng, of the award- winning Brand Leadership Group.

I must admit, I had many misgivings, not the least of which was the man’s daunting reputation for having impossibly high standards, and zero tolerance for anything less than excellence, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Not because his standards are not high (they are), and not because he tolerates anything less than excellence (he forgives, but does not tolerate!), but because he turned out to be an accessible and obliging human being .

But more important than all of this, is Ikalafeng’s unshakeable belief in brands, and particularly in the brand we call Africa.

If it is true that a brand is the user’s total experience of the product (and it is), then brand Africa offers a rich and magnificent array of experiences.

From pyramids to peeing on trees, the story of Africa can be told in a multiplicity of fascinating images, languages, rhythms and practices.

This splendid collection of cultural cornucopia makes the story of Africa a complex one to tell.

The range of emotions that Africa inspires in us covers the full spectrum, from pride to shame, from hopelessness to defiance, and from confusion to clarity.

And it is this cacophony of contradictions that makes being African so fascinating.
Critical to a brand’s success is its ability to distinguish itself from similar products.

Again, Africa is a winner in this respect. There is no place quite like Africa, and no one quite like an African.

I read the results of a survey some years ago (and I am sure nothing much has changed since then) that declared Africans to be the happiest people in the world.

Commenting on these results the author wondered how it was that with so much war, famine, and lack, Africans could still be happy.

The answer, they said, was hope. Africans are full of hope. No doubt this is why we give our children names like “Thembelihle”!

It is this hope that has sustained Africans through all kinds of challenges including colonisation and slavery.

But hope can be as much a hindrance as it is a help. Anderson Cooper, the host of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 and special correspondent for the TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes, and The Oprah Winfrey Show, put it very succinctly when he said: Hope is not a plan. Don’t hope for something. Plan for it.

A lot of what people believe about a brand is related to what the owner says about it.

All advertising, corporate communications and public relations are attempts by the owners of brands to influence what users think.

If you consider this in terms of nations and continents, you will begin to understand why it’s vital for territories to control their own media.

Today, information communication technologies have allowed us to take a backstage look at the places whose PR spiels are better than ours and now we realise that they too have problems.

However, because they own the means by which their countries are represented to the world, they are able to filter the messages we receive about them to minimise the negative and leverage the positive.

The EastWest global index presents quarterly and annual rankings of 200 countries and territories, based on how they are described in major media.

Given all the drama and diatribe surrounding Zimbabwe, I started searching for my country at the bottom of the list. Imagine my surprise when I found that we were only ranked number 53 out of a total of 200.

So you see, things aren’t as bad as you thought. Zimbabwe is not as bad as we thought. And neither is Africa.

It’s time Africans started taking responsibility for what we believe about Africa, and acting in accordance with where we want to go.

When we are able to deliver Africa as a brand that is simply irresistible, a brand that exceeds expectation, a brand that is compelling and that delivers delight to every internal and external customer, then we will be well on our way to realising our hopes.

But all of this needs a plan. A carefully crafted, well-thought-out plan.

Brand plans extend beyond companies and continents, and can apply to individuals too.

Dubbed “Mr Brand”, Ikalafeng himself is one of the most successfully managed personal brands I have come across.

A darling of the media fraternity and a friend of everyone who makes things happen in South Africa, he presents himself with the slickness of a well-oiled machine.

What if every individual in Africa determined to manage his own circle of influence with the same fastidious care?

What if every councillor made it his mission to present his city in the best possible light.

What if every politician attended every conference seminar and workshop with the primary agenda of building and supporting his nation brand?

What if Africans began to believe that the continent really is a force to reckon with, that we really do have worth, that we really can rule the world,?

A far-fetched vision? Perhaps. But I, for one, am a believer.