In 2007 Zola became the face of a well-known mobile phone company. The king of kwaito was dubbed ‘the second biggest brand in the country next to Nelson Mandela’.
What few people knew was that behind the scenes it had taken a long, hard fight to get the company’s management to agree to use Zola in their marketing.
I was told this story by Bonnke Shipalane, the prepaid marketing manager who’d fought that fight. He was deeply immersed in popular urban culture rooted in the mass market and knew that Zola’s was the music everyone was listening to. But when he mentioned Zola in the office the response was, ‘Who?’. Courageously, he championed Zola with such conviction that he eventually prevailed. The artist and the brand went on to have a marriage made in heaven for three years.
Why is this 13-year-old story relevant? Because, sadly, the disconnect between brand teams and their target market still happens today.
Recently, in an interview with one of the most streamed and accomplished artists in South Africa, he explained to me that his recent endorsement deal would not have come to fruition without the persistence of a brand manager who went out of her way to motivate the cost of the deal. This led the artist to feel the need to overcompensate with the placement of that brand in our content piece.
In some marketing teams there are the champions of culture. For every culturally savvy victory that is won today, there is a champion fighting for the creatives and pushing the envelope to help their brands move at the speed of culture. I have a message for you champions. I recognise your role as the frontline workers who fight for cultural relevance in South Africa’s corporates.
And that’s the key: your brand needs immersion in the places where your target market lives.
I also know it’s not fair to say all artists, or celebrities are arrogant and unreliable, just like it’s not fair to say that all brand teams are ignorant or appropriators. So I see you. I salute you.
It must be acknowledged that while many brands claim to create advertising and marketing campaigns rooted in culture – and they genuinely work to do this – the reality is that very few members of their teams who are tasked to make this happen, live in the communities their target markets do.
And that’s the key: your brand needs immersion in the places where your target market lives. If you want to sell a product to wealthy suburbia, you’d do well to know how wealthy suburbia lives. What do they wear, drive, eat? And if you want creatives to endorse your product, best you choose one they relate to. The same applies to selling a product in the urban mass market.
I’m simplifying, and of course, it has to go deeper than that, right to the heart of the people allocating the budgets. Decisions about brand representation need to be closely informed by people who belong in the target market and not by people who occupy a small, external niche.
And I’m not talking about the role of consumer research here. I’m talking about brand marketing staff who are daily immersed in both the corporate world and the real lives of the target markets. They are the missing link that connects the product to its buyers.
Marketing should be about uplifting and empowering and the sad fact is that – generally – global brands come with little understanding of our local context and local employees have to follow the global brand book with limited ability for localised input.
Go see, taste, smell, hear what happens in the worlds of your target markets, then you can create a South African campaign for a South African audience and improve much more than your profits in the process.
Connecting brands to culture connects them to consumers and we do this best by supporting and using local content for local relevance.
I have a message for corporate marketing managers or anyone else that makes the final call on spend. If you don’t already know who they are, identify the culture champions on your team and ask them to take you out among your target market. Go and see the people who consume your products, while they’re consuming them and where they consume them.
Your champions are almost certainly doing more than their job spec requires and obviously passionate about their jobs. A smart leader will turn that energy and passion loose and follow – literally – to see where it goes. Given half a chance, your champions could be the keys to unlocking the next growth phase of your brand.
This isn’t about simple diversity. A team comprising a range of colours, genders, ages and orientations is not diverse if all the team members listen to the same music, eat at the same restaurants and hangout at the same places on weekends.
Diversity must be purpose-driven for the brand and its marketing leaders need to be deliberate about learning from the diversity of their teams. Go see, taste, smell, hear what happens in the worlds of your target markets, then you can create a South African campaign for a South African audience and improve much more than your profits in the process.
Siya Metane is the CEO of SlikourOLife, a platform for sharing information on urban culture and music, featuring videos and interviews to give substance to the music and to musicians who may not have access to traditional platforms, and offering a more cohesive and accessible place for their videos than YouTube. As a former member of Skwatta Kamp, he knows what content is relevant to the diverse South African audience.
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