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Shifting The Branding Mindset Is The Real Competitive Edge That African Brands Need.

By Shreya Karia, Brand Stategist

In our modern landscape, consumers are overloaded with choice and besieged by messaging. Aggressive competition, rapidly spreading innovation and easier access to markets are the new status quo for any operating business.  Abundance doesn’t just make it harder for brands to be chosen. It erodes loyalty and changes dynamics. Once the result of meeting expectations, today loyalty is the consequence of being able to constantly shift them.

People’s expectations for brands have evolved. Fundamentally they want solutions that make their lives simpler. This holds as much truth for the African continent as it does globally. The ‘Superbrand’ of today’s world makes a difference by either making a product easier to use, saving people time or empowering users. These brands put the customer journey at the core of every function in their business.

“Whether your organisation sells household goods, health services, cars or financial services, delivering a superior experience will be what makes you a winner,” says John Maxwell, PwC’s Global Consumer Markets leader.

This year’s Superbrands’ East Africa edition marks a significant milestone; for the first time, its results were derived entirely from the consumer insights survey. A reflection that the East African consumer is evolving, becoming more discerning and places value on brands that focus on their needs. How therefore, should our African homegrown brands evolve alongside their audience?

To be a ‘customercentric’ company, to build the brand around what the customer wants requires a shift in mindset across the organization. It requires a concerted effort to move brand building out of the purview of solely the chief marketing officer and instead ask every division to ‘think customer’. To build a strong brand requires companywide investment driven by the executive level, C-Suite.

every action a company takes reflects on the brand. The BRAND is the business, the culture, and is all about the consumer. This responsibility falls on the shoulders of a unified executive team.”

Successful customercentric, brand driven companies have four characteristics at their core:

  1. Nurturing the right mindset towards brand value.
  2. Investing in the skillset needed to build and manage brand value.
  3. Allocating the right organizational and financial resources to achieve their business objectives and build sustainable brand equity.
  4. Cultivating an organizational culture that reflects their brand.

Brands can no longer be viewed as separate from the business. Transparency and information accessibility mean that, increasingly, a brand is about what a company does and how it behaves, not just what is said; and the business is about trust, not just delivery. If a company goes through troubled times is it a question of a disconnected brand, an outdated business model, or failed leadership? For African brands to outdo their international counterparts they cannot survive by branding themselves as one thing yet act like something else.

A strong brand is driven by and in turn should drive not just marketing but human resources, operations, product research and finance.

Only by working together can executives establish and build cohesive brands to guide their companies forward. The reality, however, for most African companies is that their executive leaders do not know much about the branding process and its relevance. To many, reservations still exist towards investing in intangible assets compared to their Western counterparts. Branding is still perceived as a cost on the budget and something to be executed by the lower level marketing department. These perceptions are the most common barriers to building impactful homegrown brands.

Success begins with a strong leader, the CEO who acts as the chief brand ambassador. It goes without saying that visible leadership sets the tone for the company. A CEO who is vested in taking the time to understand exactly how branding is driving growth, influencing the customer (positively or negatively), and serving the company’s goals and objectives is one that can begin to guide the rest of their executive team. An impactful CEO can play the role of unifier, bridging the gap between different viewpoints across the organization. They are someone who challenges their leadership team to ask each other whythey do what they do rather than just how? Even the most straightforward of questions can provide incredible insight into brand strategy.

If the CEO is the brand’s most visible ambassador, then its most ardent naysayer is finance, the CFO. More than 45% of CFO’s (according to MarketingTech) noted that the reason marketing proposals get denied budget allocation is because they do not indicate a clear correlation to value. And yet, strong brands are substantially more valuable.

According to Pete Shimer, CFO of Deloitte “financial value of the brand often exceeds any single asset class that appears on a corporate balance sheet and is a significant multiple of revenue and cash flow.”

Brand equity is extremely important for driving the bottom line – powerful branding influences consumer choice and drives sales which in turn surges shareholder value. To contextualize, the cumulative brand value residing in the world’s top 100 brands stands at US$2.2Trillion (Interbrands 2019 Best Global Brands Insights Report). This in itself should be enough to get any finance executive more enthusiastic about the potential of branding.

 A strong brand can only be perceived by what it mirrors internally, and no greater role can be played than by HR. Hiring employees who reflect the brand’s values, instilling a culture of interdepartmental collaboration and inspiring internal ambassadors all leads to an environment of an enthused, engaged workforce – the company’s most powerful marketing tool. A meaningful brand can provide the answer to an employee’s most-asked question, ‘Why do I do what I do?’ Richard Branson emphatically noted “organizations should look after their employees, who in turn will automatically look after the customers and maintain the brand value”. Just as a shift in mindset is required about the role of marketing, so too does it apply to HR. A conscientious recalibration from the administration department to the ‘talent nurturing’ division is essential.

The nature of marketing and the role of chief marketing officer has and is rapidly changing. Demanding consumers, accessibility to big data and technology along with shortened product cycles now mean that the role of the marketer is critical to the success of any business. The most competent of marketers know their consumer inside out. And they know that their sole objective is to make the customer’s voice heard in every business decision.  And yet, marketing as a function continues to be relegated to lower level department status in many African businesses. Across the USA, Europe and parts of Asia CMO’s are stepping into the roles of president and CEO at higher rates than ever before (Russell Reynolds Report) – pointing to their critical role both commercially and strategically within the organization.  To be a truly customercentric organization means to bring the marketing function into the heart of the executive leadership team and consistently engage the question ‘does this serve our customer?’

40% of the top ten brands within this current Superbrands’ East African edition are homegrown. Over the course of the past few years international brands have steadily been moving higher up on the listing with many marking their first entry within the top twenty. The battle between local preferences and international powerhouses will only intensify as consumers become even more discriminating. One thing however, is clear those that will succeed are the companies that will be resolute in their focus to uncover the customer journey and to make it central to every brand building initiative. Driving brand equity is not the responsibility of one single person or department.

The strength in any brand lies in its ability to be pervasive, all-encompassing and distinctive. It must become an organizational wide activity practiced by all functions and driven steadfastly by its executive leaders.

Ultimately, this will be the only key to staying competitive in the 21st century for local brands.