‘Place branding’ – the branding of a nation, town or even a continent – is an area of branding that has undergone huge growth in the past five years. In the case of Africa, branding its nations is currently a popular topic. Many, including the rock star Bono, argue that perceptions need to start changing about Africa – moving away from the charity image to, instead, portraying its various cultures, economic strength and highlighting the positive stories about Africa. Yet it seems that South Africa, as a leading African nation, has always managed to sidestep the downtrodden image that other African nations are burdened with. South Africa, since its transition from apartheid in 1994, has created a strong identity for itself. Figures like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are practically international celebrities; South Africa’s sporting teams are internationally recognised, and successful country exports, like its wine, have all contributed to build a positive side to South Africa’s ‘brand’.
However, years of poor leadership under President Mbeki (a leader who started with great potential); the country’s HIV crisis; increasing disparities in wealth and subsequent high crime rates, along with recent political upheavals have weakened South Africa’s brand internationally. To many an outside observer, South Africa looks like a nation in disarray – one that had been full of promise but has yet to deliver.
But next year South Africa will be hosting football’s World Cup – an international sporting event that, executed well, could turn around perceptions of the country. The World Cup in 2010 has already led to a surge in infrastructure and development, creating jobs during a recession that has hit South Africa hard. The event, many South Africans believe, offers the country a chance to demonstrate its strengths and a new face – under a new political leadership – to the rest of the world. “2010 is the platform for a gear change for South Africa – it is the launch into the next phase of growth,” says John Battersby, UK country manager for South Africa’s International Marketing Council. “All focus is on the World Cup. South Africa is gripped by 2010 fever.”
Sport for a nation
International sporting events, if planned and executed well, can have the potential to boost a country’s image and economy. Generally, the upswing lasts for a year after the event has taken place. The key for countries (or cities) is to ensure that there is a long-term communications strategy in place to build on the surge of national pride and growth. In some cases – like China’s hosting of the Olympics – the hosting of an international event has the potential to transform existing perceptions. China’s goal was to demonstrate its progress to the world. It succeeded.
South Africa’s goal, through its hosting of the World Cup, should be to demonstrate its unity as well as its potential in areas such as economic growth – after all, football is a uniting sport in South Africa, played across all sections of society. To date, the most memorable international sporting event for South Africa was the Rugby World Cup in 1995 that followed Mandela’s election as leader. While that is a hard act to follow, the 2010 FIFA World Cup could tap into that history – to show that the ‘Rainbow Nation’ proclaimed by Mandela in 1994 is still a possibility, or even a growing reality. As Battersby says, “We can use sport as a way to unite people – to recapture the unity of 1994. Football in South Africa is bigger than anything else and unifying people around ‘feel good’ factors is an important legacy. It can lead to a more united country that has shared this experience and has a shared future.” Demonstrating this unity will need to be made tangible during 2010, for example, by making matches accessible to all South Africans and not just to international visitors.
South Africa also has the opportunity to confront misleading perceptions about Africa as a continent, by opening people’s eyes to the rich culture of the African continent as well as celebrating its own culture. But if South Africa as a nation is on the cusp of a transformation for the better, then it needs to tell its story beyond the World Cup. The country has already made history by being the first African country to host a football World Cup – an event which many believed would not happen. From a nation brand perspective, its hosting of the World Cup is timed well, following a strong leadership change and offering an ideal opportunity to challenge current international perceptions of the country. The key is to ensure that positive transformation continues beyond the FIFA World Cup.
Short biog: Melissa advises global companies on brand strategy. She is author of two books –‘More than a Name: an introduction to branding’ (AVA Books, 2005) and ‘The Fundamentals of Branding’, (AVA Books, 2009).