How brands have shaped Africa’s past, and will shape its future

It was said somewhere that the Berlin Wall was not brought down in 1989 by politics, but by East German youths’ urge for Coca-Cola and Levi Jeans. These products seemingly represented the happiness, rebellion and freedom that wrestled within them behind the Iron Curtain, yearning to come out. While this notion is discussed on the website of the latter brand, for the former a word had already been coined: Cocacolonisation, which is said to refer to the globalising (or exporting) of American culture to other countries, through the adoption of its biggest brands such as Coke.

Couple this with an experience I had with a journalist in 2018, when Britain’s then Prime Minister, Theresa May, began her three country African tour. The journalist was keen to get me on air during the special coverage of this trip (rather undeservedly I think), to shift the conversation from the usual topics of extractives, corruption and – at that time – Brexit, to the continent’s emerging technology and consumer-facing industries. After the failed effort we arranged to meet over a coffee, during which I asked these questions: can you name three African brands that currently resonate with you? And, if so, which do you think has the necessary level of international appeal to engage audiences more than the ‘usual themes’? The blank response I received did not surprise me. The former question is one I often ask, and has only been answered to date by a 19 year-old intern, whose answer included a small but interesting Lagos-based brand called WafflesNCream.

I believe in the power of brands to communicate an element of their home region’s culture. However, I am also aware that by design they showcase these cultural facets in idealised ways, which fail to reflect broader realities. In the decades prior to 1989 Levi and Coca-Cola did what great companies do: they hyper-actualised their brand concepts, through strategically crafted media campaigns. The cumulative emotional effects were strong enough not just to build huge organisations, but also to move a group of East Germans to bring down a physical wall and massive regime. To dampen any overly idealistic views held about the West, East Germans would only have had to visit the region in the years that followed. It would only really be possible for the brand-induced notions to persist and turn into deep perceptions, if East Germans remained experientially ignorant of the US and Western Europe over a long period; which I believe, by and large, did not happen.

However, Unlike the East Germans, I think a majority of those living in Africa have had scant experience of life in the West. I also think the reverse is true, and many of us in the West have had few personal escapades in African nations, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa. The resulting experience vacuum has caused Africans and Westerners to build opinions of each other, unwittingly, from what private and third-sector companies have pushed through popular information channels. Through these channels some of the most inspiring Western brands have been able to move minds on the continent, so much so that in 2019 it was reported that 86 of the top 100 most admired brands in Africa were not from Africa. Conversely, and in the absence of inspiring, internationally recognised African brands, it has been international NGOs (INGOs) and other non-African actors who have been the most heard. Being the few sources of information, they were unintentionally positioned as African information sources in years past, which led to their campaigns shaping how US and European audiences perceived the continent’s culture.

Do I blame INGOs for negative perceptions of Africa? Not really. On one hand we have to admit that there actually is serious poverty on the continent, and depressingly so. In 2018 the Brookings Institute claimed Nigeria overtook India as the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty, and projected that the DRC would soon claim the number two spot. Note that India has well over five and fifteen times the population of Nigeria and the DRC respectively. On the other hand, INGOs have definitely contributed negatively to the continent’s image through so-called ‘Poverty Porn’ campaigns. Although, like any successful brand, were they not just hyper-actualising their concept – in this case fighting poverty – within their campaigns for increased target audience effect to provoke action? When have you ever experienced a Christmas as magical as those shown in the ‘90’s Coke adverts, or danced randomly with an iPod like one of the silhouettes in the ‘00’s Apple adverts? INGOs make up one industry, and cannot be uniquely blamed for Africa’s image anymore than Silicon Valley can be singled out for the US’s brand hegemony. Therefore, I do not wholly put the blame of Africa’s image on INGOs, but I do put the entire responsibility of changing it on Africans.

At De Charles we believe that the continent’s future image will be largely shaped by the brands it is able to produce, and their ability to attract and move global audiences. My experience has led me to maintain that narrative is one of Africa’s biggest untapped assets, and that its entrepreneurs in consumer and tech-related spaces must harness them with thought through visual identities and messages, for their companies’ gain, as well as that of the wider continent. It is by conveying a multitude of rich brand experiences to target African and international audiences – each showing contextualised facets of life in Dakar, Windhoek, Lusaka, Abuja and Kinshasa – that other segments of each nations’ cultures will start to be broadly realised. To do this we are simply working with forward-thinking entrepreneurs to build better products, better brands, and better perceptions for Africa.

Today’s interconnected and fast-paced media environment has shown its capacity to distribute messages further and faster than ever before. But we must not fail to realise that our many media conduits allow for people to consume information of all types: both the positive and the negative. Africa-focused founders, especially those who are aware of this, have an extra duty on top of those from other regions. They have a duty not just to make profitable enterprises, but enterprises with voices and sentiments that can contrast and co-exist with the necessary messages on poverty. If that can happen we may be surprised at the literal and metaphorical walls we may be able to fall in other regions. But, more importantly, we as Africans might just break down the longstanding psychological walls built up by perceptions within ourselves.

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