Is Africa misbranded?

21 August 2007

Nation brands are difficult to get right. When it comes to Africa, the branding of the continent is particularly one-sided. It is easy to mistake one of the world’s most disparate and compelling continents as an impoverished, war-riddled charity case that is best to avoid.

Despite the fact that some African countries are excelling in growth and stability – Botswana, for example, was one of the world’s fastest growing economies over the last decade – the continent’s reputation continues to overpower the identities of its nations.

Perhaps this is because the noisiest branding of Africa still comes from outside the continent.

The failure of ‘charity branding’
Africa’s dominant image has been created by the charity brands: the 1985 Live Aid to provide food for Ethiopia, 2005’s Live 8, “Make Poverty History,” G8 politics, Sir Bono and Sir Bob, celebrity adoptions, and Vanity Fair covers.

brandchannel.com This article was first published by brandchannel.com. Republished here with kind permission from the author.

Such campaigns can play a positive role – a strong public voice can put ground swells of pressure on politicians and instigate change. But, en masse, these campaigns have a tendency to create a perception of Africa as a continent that is beyond hope: too much poverty, too much death, and an overwhelming sense of too many problems with too few coherent solutions.

For all the good intentions of the campaigners, the tragic reality is that even the charity branding is not working.

Despite the awareness and the pleas – and the impression that much is being done for “Africa” – overall international aid to Africa has consistently fallen during the last decade; most of the G8 promises to help Africa have not been met; unfair international trade rules remain a key issue; and external funding for manageable diseases like HIV/Aids and malaria is simply not enough. The newspaper columns, the concerts, and the international declarations remain in the realms of rhetoric.

All in the same ‘basket case’
While it is impossible to deny that within Africa lies critical, complex, and extraordinarily challenging issues, it must also be acknowledged that she is a continent of 54 countries and one of vast contrasts.

Zimbabwe still attracts tourists to the stable enclave of Victoria Falls while the rest of the country collapses; its neighbour, South Africa, is experiencing high levels of economic growth, tourism, and foreign investment, while shouldering a reputation for violent crime; Mozambique has become a hot-spot for backpackers and other tourists after decades of civil war; Morocco in the north has successfully become a “European” travel destination, almost distinct from the rest of Africa.

Yet any “good” stories of growth, strong leadership, and achievements are too often overshadowed by persistent news of the bad.

“Africa is suffering from the ‘continent branding effect’ where every country shoulders the reputation of the others,” says government advisor Simon Anholt.

“One of the greatest obstacles to Africa’s economic development is the well-meaning attempt from people in the West branding Africa as a ‘basket case.’ But a charity brand is fundamentally different from a growth brand. So Africa is simultaneously trying to present two incompatible ideas: a desirable destination and a charity case.”

A re-brand for African countries?
The tables, however, are beginning to turn. Attempts are being made by individual African countries to create identities that stand out from the dominant Africa continent brand.

Much of these branding exercises are aimed at the business and tourism sectors. Ethiopia “re-branded” to lose its previous famine-ridden image in favour of foreign investment and tourism. Namibia clearly recognized that celebrity endorsement can boost a country brand by allowing “Brad and Angelina” (plus baby) to their shores. Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo are actively courting international business to attract investment in their post-conflict states.

Countries like Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, and Botswana have successfully positioned their wares to appeal to the high-end traveller. Even Nigeria has attempted a repositioning by launching its “Heart of Africa” campaign to a London audience “to promote Nigeria’s national brand assets.” Its message seeks to convince the UK’s business minds that there is more to Nigeria than oil and conflict.

But there is the danger of branding for branding’s sake or mistaking a tourism campaign, website, or advertising as a country “re-brand”.

“The first principle of brand development is to do it for a good measurable reason,” says Douglass de Villiers, CEO at Interbrand Sampson Africa. “It’s amazing the amount of money and effort that is wasted on country branding ‘because everyone’s doing it’.

“The second principle of brand development is that branding is not advertising. Our TVs and press are inundated with ‘country adverts’ – the ads are becoming generic and seem unsupported by other brand development activities.

“In essence,” argues De Villiers, “when embarking on the development of a country brand, the reasoning and activities should be based on a solid country business plan – growing GDP and sustaining GDP is usually a perfect place to start.”

South Africa’s experience
South Africa has long invested in its own brand, both inside the country and internationally. Much can be learned from South Africa’s experiences of shifting perceptions (and realities) in the transition from an apartheid state, which was eventually boycotted by the international community, to a democratic country in 1994. In hindsight, significant progress has been made over the last decade.

“The success of creating and consolidating the South African brand has been its comprehensive and people-centric approach to country branding,” says John Battersby, UK country manager for South Africa’s International Marketing Council. “It rolls together both the tangibles and intangibles and highlights the touch-and-feel components of branding.

“The diversity, warmth, and generosity of the people – the ‘ubuntu’ – is what visitors really take away from South Africa,” says Battersby. “And that is why the music, the sounds, and the rhythm of the nation are as important as the wildlife, mountains, and beautiful beaches. So the brand that emerges is as tangible as Coca-Cola or Nike and it is the sum of all its parts – tourism, economic potential, and human diversity and togetherness.”

South Africa may be on the right track – and is well aware that there are more issues to iron out before the country hosts soccer’s World Cup in 2010 – but many other nations still lag behind.

“The good news is that African governments are thinking about this a lot,” says Anholt. “But they are reaching the wrong conclusions. Expensive advertising and PR campaigns, logos, and slogans are a wicked waste of taxpayers’ and donors’ money. A reputation cannot be constructed; it has to be earned.”

The African Renaissance
While Africa’s nations search for their voice with “brand Africa,” the regional context must not be overlooked. It is important that an African national brand is clear on its position as part of the African continent, while offering something distinct from her neighbours – the nation is the sub-brand within the larger continent brand.

South Africa’s approach has included this factor. “There needs to be a balance between South Africa as part of Africa and South Africa itself; the South Africa brand does not exist in a vacuum,” says Battersby. “Our approach capitalizes on the specific strengths of South Africa: it is both a gateway and a catalyst to speed the revival of Africa.”

Indeed, South Africa has often positioned herself, and been perceived, as a lead player in Africa.

President Thabo Mbeki famously proposed an “African Renaissance” in a speech in 1998 – it was a rallying cry for African countries to unite and throw off any remaining colonial hangovers: “[O]ut of Africa reborn must come modern products of human economic activity, significant contribution to the world of knowledge, in the arts, science and technology, new images of an Africa of peace and prosperity.” It could also be interpreted as a call for a regional repositioning of Africa on the international stage.

Perhaps the most important aspect of “brand Africa,” and one that seems to be absent from the international charity-focused brand, is the involvement of African people.

As de Villiers says: “The countries’ branding activities will need to focus on a multitude of audiences, all with different interests and drivers. But importantly – very importantly – the country also needs to focus on its people as their backbone to the brand’s development. If the country’s own people don’t buy the brand, then the intended audience won’t – at least not for long!”

The future Africa?
An effort to “brand” Africa, and her countries, does not mean glossing over the troubling issues to promote only the good. But it is a tactic of balancing perceptions. As an African trade representative commented: “creating a brand for a country is about striking a balance – you need to intensify the positive image that people know about you, and balance this with addressing the challenges that you experience as a country.”

Africa could benefit from a shift in her current identity: by a brand that is managed from within, with a vision that is not overshadowed by charity and donor messages, or by a one-sided media image.

Emerging country brands must also be realistic and authentic. A website or tourism campaign may be a component of a brand campaign, but it will have little impact without a broader brand development structure and vision.

“We currently rely on the stereotype of the celebrity driven, paternalistic helping hand that belies the true power of the African people and their cultural landscape,” says Iain Ellwood, head of strategy at Interbrand UK. “We are still waiting for the authentic branding of African nations.”

Perhaps only then will the dominant image of a “no hope” Africa be a brand of the past.

Melissa Davis runs Truebranding, an agency in London that specialises in brand and responsibility. She is also the author of “More than a Name: An introduction to branding” (AVA Books, 2005). This article was first published by brandchannel.com. Republished here with kind permission from the author.