Alex Steer writes:

In Cape Town, ‘This is Africa’ is normally a sort of verbal shrug. It’s what you say when you see a road that’s more pothole than tarmac, or when a breakfast meeting finally starts at noon. In the last few months, though, ‘This is Africa’ has taken on a rather different meaning, as every media channel, and every brand, scrambles to ‘welcome the world’. This is Africa, and this is Africa’s World Cup.

The more optimistic see it as a chance for one of Africa’s most successful countries to show that the whole continent is coming of age. The more pessimistic see the World Cup as a cynical commoditisation of the idea of ‘Africa’: a cheap shorthand of Lion King imagery and broad cultural stereotypes lending a false exoticism to a Euro-centric and hugely commercial football tournament. The evidence for the prosecution rests on the shambles of ticketing, which either incompetently or viciously priced the vast majority of South African and African football fans out of attending matches.

If FIFA had paid more attention to its hosts, it might have avoided mixing bland pan-Africanisms with repressive corporatism. If brands are paying attention, there are a few deeper lessons they might draw about South Africa’s new consumers (the ones that didn’t make it to the stadiums) – lessons that even consumer research sometimes misses, to its cost.

The first is the need for specificity. Just as vague nods to ‘Africa’ will not wash, neither will any brand proposition that is not explicit about why it deserves attention. FIFA’s major sponsors are spending hundreds of millions on media and global brand campaigns – yet an increasing share of purchasing power in South Africa is in the hands of millions of low-income consumers who are driven by a fundamental conception of value. Brands thrive because they offer low cost, quality, safety and personal status. Global sponsor? Nobody cares.

The World Cup has also revived the lingering stereotype of the ‘new African consumer’: young, upwardly-mobile, black and with disposable income. This isn’t confined to advertising: hugely popular soap operas like Generations and Rhythm City are dazzling cocktails of social issues and fetishisation of commercial success that make Dallas look tame. These ‘new consumers’ look remarkably like the old ones, though, and there are some signs that the use of aspirational ‘black diamond’ images to sell existing products to new target audiences is wearing a bit thin.

‘Emerging consumers’ do not think of themselves as if they were playing catch-up with richer ones – or as if they were the same as each other. The smarter brands are segmenting these markets attentively, and looking for genuine insights. Asking the wrong questions can lead brands astray. Few low-income South Africans, for example, report having life insurance (24%) or investments (17%; see Global Monitor), in part because they do not associate these labels with membership of informal burial societies or stokvels (rotating credit unions), widespread in these markets. Insightful financial services brands are developing formal versions of these, tailoring their products to their new (not ‘emerging’) consumers.

If the World Cup has given us anything, though, it is the sound of the vuvuzela. Raucous, unfamiliar, disruptive, it’s an apt metaphor for the new South African consumer landscape and its challenge to brands. You can’t block it out, you can’t change it, and you’d be churlish to try. Sorry, brands of the world, but you’ll have to get used to it. This is Africa.

Alex Steer is a WPP Marketing Fellow and worked in our London office in 2009. He is currently a planner at Ogilvy Cape Town and rejoins The Futures Company in New York in September. The picture at the top of this post comes from the internet guide to Cape Town, and is used with thanks.

2 thoughts on “New consumers, new rules: branding the World Cup

  1. Andy Stubbings says:

    Great post, Alex. It definitely tallies with my experience having just come back from South Africa on holiday. In fact, I’ll see your “cynical commoditisation of the idea of Africa”, and raise you the cynical commodisation of the vague and bland idea of “football” and “fans” by a number of brands that I won’t name here…

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