Refreshing Africa’s Reputation

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By Sally Costerton
H&K EMEA President

For many, Africa is a continent of warmth, optimism, diversity and drive – the world’s last true emerging market opportunity. Hosting this year’s World Cup has certainly helped to boost Africa’s promising image, while the continent’s impressive numbers speak volumes.

For others however, the continent remains a charity case – a place where corruption runs rife and progress is consequently hindered. The reality is that this immense continent is enormously diverse, but these perceptions matter, because they form the backbone of major business and political decisions that affect Africa internally and its relations with the rest of the world. This article briefly examines the notion of ‘Brand Africa’ and provides suggestions on how existing negative perceptions of the continent might be changed.

Growing Force

In 2008, Africa’s collective GDP stood at $1.6 trillion (roughly equal to Brazil or Russia) – and by 2020 it is expected to grow to $2.6 trillion. This projected GDP growth rate is far higher than the projected population growth rate as the table below illustrates. UN statistics put Africa’s current population at just over 1 billion. By 2020, it is predicted to rise to over 1.27 billion – nearly twice that of Europe’s. Add to that a projection from McKinsey that more than 50% of African households will have discretionary spending power by 2020, and the continent’s promise and potential is clear.

What is ‘Brand Africa’?

When thinking about Brand Africa, the essence of ‘brand’ applies, i.e. the trust and expectation placed in a product, organisation, or even a place which gives it its point of preference or ‘license to operate’. But the notion of ‘Brand Africa’ relates to the continent overall. Is it possible to have a single brand image which captures its size and diversity; 1 billion people, 53 nations and more than 1,000 indigenous languages?

Today, sadly, this one brand image does exist. Ask people outside the continent itself what the term Africa means to them and many will give a shorthand – shaped largely by the international media. By and large, the images of Africa reported in the media remain negative – and overwhelmingly comprise stories and images of piracy, violence, pestilence, famine and war. Time and again, Africa is portrayed to the world as a charity case, while positive stories go unreported. For evidence of this, just consult the Africa pages of leading global media like the BBC, CNN and even non-Anglo Saxon media like Al Jazeera.

These negative stories portray the dominant aspect of Africa’s brand image – a continental reputation that is very one-dimensional. This matters, because brands act as a guarantor of investment and tourism.

How can perceptions of Africa be changed?

Reputations are usually complex and multifaceted. There are various stakeholders in any one country with different views and agendas. In the case of Africa, overcoming the negative continental perceptions described above will require compelling messaging and evidence to counter myths and deeply-held beliefs. Attempting this at a pan-continental level would be long, slow, expensive and ultimately the wrong way to address the problem.

A better approach would be to present an alternative picture of Africa. For this alternative picture to emerge, three important points must be addressed:

  1. An overarching vision and ambition – whether pan-continental or regional. The good news is that shared visions and objectives do exist among current international African bodies like the African Union and COMESA;
  2. Positive individual stories need to be told to counterbalance negativity and provide new perspectives;
  3. The root causes of existing perceptions also need to be addressed, and changes communicated.

Building Africa’s reputation must be both a top-down and a bottom-up exercise. It’s not merely a case of telling positive stories however – credible story-tellers are also important and there are a number of key truths:

  • Authenticity: an image not grounded in reality will fall apart. Stories need to be authentic and potential issues must be addressed through deeds as much as words;
  • Be clear on objectives: make sure these are relevant to overarching goals;
  • Reputations are built from rational and emotional elements: when a story is told, it needs to find a balance which works with the audience. The story should also be tied in with a vision and it needs to be realistic and ensure buy-in;
  • Stronger together: efforts should be made to coordinate messaging from various bodies both within and among countries. Domestic communities and the diaspora should be engaged, as should a nation’s key companies. Think of the important contribution strong corporate brands make to a country’s image: for example, the strong association between BMW or Mercedes and Germany, or Armani and Italy. When thinking of Africa, or a given African country, it’s questionable whether such corporate linkages immediately spring to mind;
  • Attract world-class platforms to accelerate impact: hosting a world-class event like the World Cup puts a spotlight on that country and this needs to be leveraged to best effect;
  • Create image through architecture: the physical environment is an important part of your brand and can signal a powerful emotional image. Landmark buildings and skylines should therefore be a part of a place’s marketing campaign.

Africa clearly has many great stories to tell and even greater potential. These stories of growth, socio-political progress and dynamism need to be told – and in great quantity, because without these refreshing stories Africa’s dated ‘charity brand’ will persist.

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