Building African brands in Africa, for Africa

When one thinks about Africa and the brands that we consume and love, we often refer to the international names that have moored ship on our shore. This is true too for South Africa, but more so the rest of the continent.
Building African brands in Africa, for Africa - Brand UnionOf course there are some very strong home-grown brands but on the whole the international players dominate our markets. The issue that I would like to tackle here is one of how do African brands become successful in their home country, and then piggy back on their local reputation to become Pan-African brands?

Direction and Protection
As brand consultant to a number of very successful African brands, I am often faced with this question. There are a number of local entrepreneurs that would like to stamp their mark in the countries where they reside; sadly most of them are scared off by the international competition. The Brand Union's strategy for any African brand that would like to be successful on their home-turf is not as complicated as you may think. I advise “Direction and Protection”. These terms are relatively self explanatory, but if instituted correctly, have successful and far reaching results.

By direction I mean “get to know your brand”, know what you are about and where you would like to be. Spend time on your business plan and strategy; because once you have a sound business model, anything is possible.

Protect your brand against international threat. How do you do that when on the whole it seems your rivals have vast financial support and an international network that can annihilate your brand in one fell swoop? This is not necessarily so!

Local is powerful
Local brands can use the principle of provenance very effectively and it is the one thing they have, that there international counterparts can never achieve. What is this provenance you may ask? In a nutshell, it is the feeling and emotion surrounding a home-grown product or service, the feeling of ‘affinity' for a country that resides in every proud national's heart. Harnessed correctly, it is immensely powerful.

Take for example the Nigerian cell-phone giant Glo. They entered their market as the 3rd cellular service provider. They were playing against the big boys: MTN and what was then known as Econet, (now Zain) both of which are not originally from Nigeria. Glo positioned themselves in this market as the local brand. They drew strongly on their founder's prominence in Nigeria (a celebrity in his own right) and successfully tapped into their market. Today it can be argued that they are the number one provider to the Nigerian market.

A brand can not only rely on provenance to generate success, technology and service delivery are very important driving factors. To compete against your international counterparts, you need to ensure that the technology behind your brand is at least on par, ideally better, than that of your competitors. No matter how much your clientele believes in your brand message and wants you to succeed because you're a home-grown entity, without the required technological support and service delivery, your brand will surely fail.

Back to the example of Glo. This innovative company is in the process of building their own telecommunications infrastructure. They are laying thousands upon thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cables under ground and sea, to ensure that they have the best African infrastructure and services for their clients. This foresight can only be commended, not only will they have a number of happy Glo customers, they too have created an infrastructural demand for a number of opposition cell phone operators, that will inevitably rent space for their networks off this powerful grid. In short the key to success requires the perfect mix of innovative thinking provenance, technology and service delivery.

One size doesn't fit all
Now that we understand how to grow these local brands, how do they expand into other areas of our continent? There are many local brands that have successfully translated into other African countries. Take for example successful South African brands: MTN, Shoprite, Nando's and SAB. They have successfully expanded their footprint into other African markets, not without hiccoughs I can assure you.

The key to this expansion is one country at a time. Don't try and conquer the whole continent at once! Bear in mind that what works for one country won't necessarily work for another, so a cookie cutter approach to your business is not recommended. Draw on your provenance, (build it into regional or continental significance) technology and service delivery, take it step by step, learn from your mistakes (because you will make them) and Africa is your playground. Our developing market is more powerful than you have ever imagined.

A word of caution though- when you feel it's time for your brand to hop our African shores and compete in first world economies, bear in mind that the provenance that has served you so well in Africa, often doesn't serve in our favour in the international arena, that however is a story for another day.

5 Dec 2008 11:36


About the author

Anthony Swart is the CEO of The Brand Union ( in Africa. A deeply rooted African, with decades of experience in branding and marketing, Anthony has a passion for developing this continent and its brands, and a vision to help grow indigenous African brands to achieve their full potential. He has a BA in Industrial Psychology, and an MBA focusing on truth in brand promise. Anthony is married with three children, two rottweilers, two cats, four fish, a hamster and a Senagalese parrot. Contact him on tel + 27 (0)11 895 9300.