Gary Harwood of Johannesburg agency HKLM. Picture: JEREMY GLYN

Gary Harwood of Johannesburg agency HKLM. Picture: JEREMY GLYN

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INTERNATIONAL brands that try to "bulldoze" their way into African markets without thought for local culture or consumer habits are bound to fail, says Gary Harwood, of Johannesburg agency HKLM.

"Just because a brand is successful in the UK, doesn't mean it will fly in Uganda," he says. "Many imported brands and cultures are not welcome because they're perceived to be invasive and insensitive. A brand's attitude is as important as the product or service itself."

There has never been a better time to take brands to Africa, says Harwood, whose agency conducts much of its business outside SA. At a time when many mature markets are struggling to grow, Africa is seen as one of the last untapped frontiers for marketers. It may be off a small base but consumer spending is expected to show strong growth in coming years.

However, Harwood says Africa's diversity and unique challenges demand a different way of thinking. "There is no standard response to branding in Africa. The continent is both predictable and unpredictable and none of its populations or its places are homogeneous. Diversity presents opportunity but marketers have to truly know and understand the continent's myriad nuances."

Overseas marketers won't understand local markets by sitting in air-conditioned offices in capital cities. The rural pace of the hinterland is different from the urban energy of the cities. Both should be treated with equal respect.

"Seeing is believing," says Harwood. "Journey deep into the regions to experience your intended brand spaces first-hand."

Africa's cultural complexity is unlikely to respond to anodyne global marketing messages, "Brands that balance local relevance and context with international aspirations are irrefutably more successful," says Harwood. Many Africans seeking a better life respond better to optimistic, positive marketing messages.

Other tips for success in Africa? Don't clutter the market. A single, "monolithic" brand is preferable to multiple small brands that risk confusing consumers. Be true: African consumers expect brands to do what they promise. Community upliftment and engagement should be part of the activities.

Marketers should tear up the familiar rule-books. While TV, radio and print campaigns may all have their place, success demands innovation and "local brand activations that inspire and engage".

Finally, says Harwood, don't ignore the way digital technology, particularly mobile phones, is transforming lives in Africa. "The spread and reach of the new media channels present huge opportunity. Marketers need to invest time and effort in determining the ideal mix."