Current brand narrative must help consumers

by Louise Burgers. Africa will get through this pandemic and thrive, because this is not the biggest challenge Africa has faced.

by Louise Burgers. Africa will get through this pandemic and thrive, because this is not the biggest challenge Africa has faced, presently or in the past. This was the message from leading marketers and brand specialists across Africa, speaking at the launch of the 2020 Brand Africa Most Admired Brands in Africa yesterday. “We have had much bigger challenges on the continent. I am confident that we will be able to navigate through. For any business that has an entrepreneurial streak, chaos and crisis are friends. That is because it gives you an opportunity to reimagine the possibilities in your future, your business models; the reason why you exist and what the canvas of the future will look like,” said Sylvia Mulinge, chief customer officer of Safaricom, which was featured as one of Africa’s most admired brands.

On Africa Day, May 25, 2020, the African continent’s most admired 100 brands were revealed in a global broadcast by Brand Africa. Retailing Africa carried all the breaking news as it happened, revealing the 2020 Brand Africa 100 Most Admired Brands. This is also the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Brand Africa 100. Based on a study by GeoPoll across 27 countries, spanning all the five economic regions, and analysed by Kantar, Brand Africa 100 provides a ranking of the brands top of mind with African consumers and “most admired”. Collectively the countries surveyed account for over 80% of the population and over 80% of the GDP of Africa.

Following on from the main announcement, a panel discussion of marketers at some of Africa’s leading brands discussed the impact of the current global crisis for brands. Eloine Barry, CEO of the African Media Agency, facilitated the discussion from New York, where she has been on lockdown for 10 weeks, on how to build brands post-COVID-19. On the panel were the CMOs and Chief Communication Officers of Google Africa, Dangote, BCW and Safaricom. “Before the pandemic, the narrative for Africa was positive, the continent was witnessing robust growth and the focus was on innovation. Then the pandemic hit. Boom. So how will companies find ways to recover from this crisis, is the question. We need to adjust to new ways of working, creating jobs, being partners in the path to recovery and brands need to play such an important role.

“Our world changed from one day to the next and as communications professionals, we try to be ready for crisis, but what we have witnessed is unprecedented. It is a crisis like none ever. There is one word: uncertainty. All crises have an end – but this one has no end.”

Getting brand messaging right

The first question Barry asked the panel, was how brands should craft relevant brand messaging post-COVID-19. Robyn de Villiers, chairman and CEO of communications firm, BCW Africa, said the most critical element for brands would be to really understand the new reality for their consumers. De Villiers said people are going to continue to struggle and face enormous challenges for some time to come on the continent of Africa; and that brand storytelling should reflect this. “It will be less about product selling and more about telling stories about how brands can help consumers solve their problems.”

She advised brands to put people first, give advice that is easy to understand and provide practical solutions, while using multiple platforms to get messages across. She particularly emphasised that the rising African youth demographic needs aid in achieving their dreams going forward and brands need to be there for them.

Mulinge said the biggest opportunity right now was for businesses to figure out how to be the change agents or ambassadors for consumers’ daily lives to create the relevance that is required. Brands don’t choose consumers; consumers make that choice. And the criteria they use to make those choices are the ones that understand them best in their current reality, she pointed out. “Every brand needs to ask what is the relevance they play? We must champion what customers are caring about today: they are caring about their safety, the continuity of their businesses; and therefore, what is our brand standing for in this particular time? Finally, everyone should consider as they are navigating this season, what can you do to stand up for your consumers and stand out in terms of the messaging. We are seeing a lot of duplication of the messaging being propagated out there.” Mulinge said brands need to ask themselves these questions:

  • So, what is authentic to you? What is important to you that customers can anchor their hope on?
  • How do you become a lot more humane and human in terms of the connectivity you have with your customers?
  • How do you become real time, so you are very much in touch with the reality they are going through every day?
Current conversations that need to happen

Barry asked the panellists to consider the conversations that needed to take place between brands and their consumers during crises. The most important keyword was “helpful”, said Mzamo Masito, chief marketing officer, Google Africa. “Most importantly, helpful around two things: to help small to medium enterprises, particularly women, who are sometimes ignored; and to help people who have lost their jobs or who are looking for jobs to restart and recover. This is one of the most important things that brands can do to become even more important in people’s lives: to help them restart and recover. The second thing is product. We still need to invest in great product and great solutions. The one area you cannot disinvest in, is the creation of great product and great solutions. The third thing we see will be important for us as Google and industry, is refreshing memory structures. Top searches and queries are focusing on finances, recovery, well being, kids’ education, employment… So, it is also important for us to be relevant in giving relevant information around those queries. But if you are a brand that is not linked to those top inquiries, you are not going to be relevant. You still need to invest in great product, creative and media. Those things are not going away,” emphasised Masito.

Anthony Chiejina, group chief brand and corporate communications officer, Dangote Group, who topped the Most Admired Brands for homegrown Africa brands, said brands were about weaving your story, including the good and the bad. It depends on how your story is woven, like a fabric. “In Africa if there is no apocalypse or a doomsday, there is no story.” He said gloomy pictures were being painted of the impact of COVID-19 on Africa, that may or may not turn out to be true. Regardless, business had to continue.

Barry said resilience was a key strength of Africa. She asked the panel to highlight what brands and marketing professionals should do to mitigate the effects of the current crisis?

In his reply, Masito said there were fundamental, evergreen brand and marketing principles that do not change, crisis or no crisis. “Africa’s biggest crisis was actually not Covid. “We have issues with unemployment – youth unemployment is 65% plus; we have issues with women inclusion; we have issues of inequality of outcomes. Perhaps those crises are even bigger than Covid. Covid will come and go, but we will still have these biggest crises – including the need for stable, competent political leadership that is full of integrity. This is what we need on the continent, Covid or no Covid:

  1. Brands still need to get back to basics: are you available – physically and tangibly?
  2. Visibility: are you visible?
  3. Helpful: You all must be helpful, and you will be helpful at a profit and at not for profit. You will have to do both. But do it with purpose and responsibly.

De Villiers agreed with Masito, saying consumers want to hear from the brands they purchase from. This is a time all need to be flexible and be available, repurpose budgets, use other channels to improve what was done in the past. “Timing is critical. When things are fast changing, we don’t strive for absolute perfection; but we create what will be helpful, even if it is good enough. Because good enough is the situation we are in right now.”

Writing the future for brands in Africa

“The collective future we will have [in Africa], will be a much better one. We will navigate this current hardship,” said Mulinge. “Based on the reality of today, we have to reimagine for ourselves, the possibilities that exist from a transformation basis.” Investment into education, elearning, remote working, and video products were some of the things that had to be accelerated because of this crisis. “With the disruption that is coming, every business must sit back and ask what are the new patterns that are happening with your consumers. Many are moving into online commerce. So then how do you pivot your current business model to take advantage of what is happening today?”

The only constant right now, Mulinge said, is that there is disruption and that this disruption is affecting you. If your core business model is too narrowly defined, you may not survive. “This crisis can also plant the seeds for a large scale reimagining for all marketers about how we begin to think about what our future looks like. How do we leverage the digital world? How do we catalyse this in our organisation to change the way we work and change the lives of our customers? Is the customer experience, right? The 4Ps of marketing are still correct for today, but they have to be anchored by the lives of our consumers and how they are consuming today.”

For more: BREAKING: Africa’s most admired 100 brands – 25 May 2020.


Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.

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