Notes on leaving Brand SA

When the rand crashed after 9/11, South A frica’s Business Day found it could no longer afford a  Washington correspondent. So, to the amazement of many, including myself, I went to work for the ANC government. I had come to admire President Thabo Mbeki and when his spokesman, Bheki Kumalo, asked whether I’d be interested in doing some writing for him, I said yes. Several months later, I had a new title: US Country Manager for South Africa’s newly minted International Marketing Council.

The IMC, later to be rechristened Brand SA, grew, I was told, from a suggestion by Niall Fitzgerald, then CEO of Unilever and a member of Mbeki’s international advisory council. In the new global economy, South Africa needed to up its game in the competition for investment, export orders, tourist dollars, skills and share of voice in international fora. Why not market the country the way Unilever marketed laundry detergent by building it as a brand?

I had no formal training in marketing, let alone branding. Seth Godin wrote a book with the punchy, ironic title “All Marketers Are Liars”. Wired as a skeptical journalist, I tended to agree. Branding was the art of seducing consumers by playing on their vanities and interior narratives so that they would pay for a Porsche Cayenne double the price of a Volkswagen Tuareg that came off the same production line. But I had not come aboard to brand or market, I told myself. I was there to help Mbeki get the better press which, at the time, I believed he and his team richly deserved. That, with their cooperation, is what I proceeded to do. Continue reading “Notes on leaving Brand SA”