The Brand in the Mirror: Frances Williams

Frances Williams
Frances Williams

Whose responsibility is it to change Africa’s image? Managing Brand Africa is the responsibility of all of us, says Frances Williams*, because that brand colours all of us.

2nd September 2009: There’s been a lot of talk about branding lately – branding of countries and even of continents. The recent visit to Ghana by US President Barack Obama set off another debate about how Africa is perceived, both within and outside the continent, and whether Brand Africa can ever be repositioned.

In the same way witnesses to the same event all have their own version of the facts, our individual experiences have an impact on how we perceive a brand, and different eyes see different things. Do we, as Africans, have a kinder view of Africa or are we all the more critical for being so? Are we so used to seeing the wide disparity between the have and have-nots in our home countries that we fail to understand just how others from more developed lands might view this?

By the same token, are we so aware of all the positive things in our societies of origin, that we despair of visitors who come only to reinforce their negative perceptions?

The Sum of Our Experience

My experience of flying British Airways will colour my perception of that brand, while the quality of a product I purchase from L’Oreal might make me question if it (or I) is ‘worth it’.

Having recently returned from a visit to South Africa organised by South Africa’s brand manager, the International Marketing Council, (we’ll be sharing more from the trip in future issues) I am incredibly inspired by the energy and determination of South Africans. With a World Cup to run, everything seems to be in the process of being built or rebuilt – a visible renaissance in a nation that has been so recently reborn from its painful past.

Yet, as I read articles in the British and international press about Africa, I have to wonder. If the essence of branding is the sum of how we feel about our experience of a product, it begs the question of how so many people who have never experienced a part of Africa have no qualms about contributing their views.

Branding Africa

Some media, never letting facts get in the way of a good story, start with a presumption of guilt, leaving the burden on the falsely accused to protest, rebut, and finally claim a victory long after the buzz generated by the issue has died down.

The African continent is a classic example of an easy target and what you are told will depend on who you ask – or don’t. For some, Africa represents a continent of hope and opportunity; for others, a place of despair and hopelessness.

Good news stories are rarely allowed to emerge from Africa and that plays strongly into the perception of the continent’s brand. Distorted reports, clarified too little and too late, continue to build a picture of crime ridden, corrupt and venal countries governed by tyrants and despots. Progress is often either grudgingly noted or swiftly dismissed when compared to ‘the bigger picture’; while external spokesmen are given more credibility than those who know the continent to make or break the case for Africa.

Knocking away Stereotypes

So what role can we, as Africans overseas, play in changing some of the assumptions and presumptions about Brand Africa?

Well, we can make a start by challenging false assumptions and knocking away negative stereotypes. Challenging ignorance, not by strident insults, but by gentle explanation and factual discourse; remembering the saying that ‘raising your voice doesn’t increase the power of your argument’.

People’s experience of us as proud Africans will colour their perception of Brand Africa. Africans can’t achieve? Africans are limited? Perhaps, then, striving for excellence – right where we are – is the best way to rebut assumptions about the capabilities of people from Africa.

A New Brand

Managing Brand Africa is the responsibility of all of us, because that brand colours all of us. In many areas, Brand Africa has never had more good news to shout about but has also never been more in need of ambassadors to make its case.
In the words of the late King of Pop, it’s time to make that change. South Africa has made a decision to protect its brand; isn’t it time the rest of Africa did the same?

* Frances Williams is the Chief Executive of Interims for Development, a Human Resources and Training consultancy and Editor of ReConnect an online careers and jobs publication for African professionals around the world.