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The 2024 Elections Broken Down with Mike Sham

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    What social media's leaderless revolutions have to gain from old-fashioned branding

    I've recently had the pleasure of attending a few talks by social media commentator Walter Pike. He often draws on the example of the nameless, faceless protestor that Time magazine named as its 'Person of the Year' in 2011 to illustrate the power of social media in generating mass movements that affect real political change virtually overnight.

    Many of last year's defining political events happened as a result of a social media revolution that was quickly picked up and spread by traditional media. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movement would certainly not have accelerated the way they did without Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

    Closer to home, support rapidly gathered around Black Tuesday and, a few months later, SOPA elicited a similar - if more global - response.

    Common thread

    The common thread running through all of these movements is the same thing that sets them apart from anything we've seen in history: they are leaderless. Or, in the words of a communications professional: unbranded.

    Think of a person that has come to represent the Arab Spring and it is Gaddafi's bloodied body - not the victorious face of a particular protestor - who will come to personify the new Libya. This is in stark contrast to Nelson Mandela emerging as the liberator, hero and - most importantly - the future of the new South Africa back in 1991.

    Mandela was almost solely responsible for shaping Brand South Africa in the 1990s and, in doing so, he became one of the world's most recognisable brands himself. Barack Obama has done something similar for the US, albeit on a smaller, and perhaps more ineffectual, scale.

    Where is the brand?

    And that brings me to my point: without leaders, where do these movements really lead? Where is the accountability, the legitimacy, the promise of a better future? Where, in short, is the brand?

    A leader, like a brand, holds a certain guarantee. While President Jacob Zuma and Juju have divided opinions across the board, at least we know what they (and their organisations) stand for. Whether we agree with them or not, their brand gives us a choice. It helps us manage our expectations, know what we can - and cannot - rely upon, and demonstrates to what extent we can trust their promises.

    No one knows where the aftermath of the Arab Spring will lead. Nor do we know the future of Occupy Wall Street, which seems to have run out of steam altogether. So where does this leave us? Should we be patting ourselves on our backs for toppling regimes that have been ruling for decades in the matter of a few weeks? Should we be celebrating that fact that we can openly hold politicians accountable for their greed? Of course we should.

    Still a place

    But in the same vein, we should also realise that there is still a place for good, old-fashioned branding, which implies a focused and sustained communications effort, an accountable leader and a realistic political platform (that extends beyond shutting down Goldman Sachs and shooting Gaddafi).

    The social-media-inspired movements may hold all the power, but with very little long-term effect. Until they grow up, all the self-congratulatory musings floating around the Twittersphere are as ineffectual as the movements themselves.

    About Maja Rode

    Maja Rode is an account director at Corporate Image ( With qualifications in marketing, economics and business administration, she's a firm believer in the power of smart communication, of which she thinks there is a serious shortage in SA. Maja believes that PR, driven by the increasing integration with social media platforms, will play an increasingly important role in the boardroom - no more boobs-and-balloons. Email az.oc.egamietaroproc@ajaM; follow @majarode.
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