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.

When, with my soon-to-be appointed colleagues in London and Mumbai, I returned to SA for regular re- and debriefing, we met not only with IMC CEO Yvonne Johnson but with Mbeki’s Carl Rove, Essop Pahad, the minister in presidency to whom IMC answered. Thus, from the outset, IMC had a dual role, branding the country and promoting and defending the president. As the Polokwane showdown approached, the latter role became ever more pronounced. After Polokwane, Pahad axed Johnson and set in motion a review of IMC I am fairly sure he meant to result in its dissolution. We had failed at what he clearly took to be our primary mission – helping Mbeki to a third term as ANC president.

The nation-branding side of the exercise was itself problematic. My impression was that very few people, inside or outside the organisation, fully grasped or bought into what was being attempted. Which, at root, was nation building – convincing South Africans to come together around a proud appreciation of the strengths that set them apart in the world and then to live the difference vividly for the world to see. Focus long-term on that and the other benefits, economic and political, would follow. Or so nation branding consultants like Simon Anholt promised at the time. Their tunes have changed as the predicted boons have failed to materialise.

In the real world of political cycles, turf wars and auditors demanding to see results (or at least ticked boxes), the IMC – and this remained true of Brand SA – struggled to differentiate its own knitting from what others were doing and were better at, such as destination marketing and investment promotion. Stakeholders like the DTI, DIRCO, SA Tourism, Arts and Culture, and Treasury questioned what this pinprick of an outfit (budget now around $15 million) which grandly called itself “custodian of the brand” was there for – except perhaps toting banners and pull-ups to events and chipping in budget as a sort of friendly ATM. Many on the inside wondered the same thing. The organisation’s chronic identity crisis made for low morale and often dizzying rates of staff turnover.

In a strategy document they approved in 2011, the IMC’s trustees, now appointees of President Jacob Zuma, acknowledged that the IMC was facing “challenges of legitimacy” and needed to become less “operational” and more “strategic”. In other words, less banner toting, please, more “designing the message, not delivering it”.  Success, they agreed, would be measured by annual improvements in South Africa’s rankings on Anholt’s Nation Brand Index and in the valuation of South Africa’s brand equity by Brand Finance.

These metrics are the artifacts of consultants who make their livings persuading governments to nation brand. They are up cobbled up along with all manner of scientific-looking diagrams to justify the existence and fees of nation-branders and to lend an aura of tangibility to things to which no numbers can be attached. No one not in the nation branding bubble pays the slightest attention to them, which is just at well. By these indicators, SA is making little or no headway.

The latest draft strategy document, covering the next five years, suggests that the long and muddled flirtation with nation branding, its constructs and indicators is finally over, and perhaps, also, the identity crisis. Pushed out of the presidency into the new department of communications, Brand SA with a new CEO and and a new set of country managers will “create and orchestrate messages that positively tell the South African story with emphasis on the NDP” and “provide insights (and) information to government about factors influencing perceptions and decisions of key audiences.”

The storytellers may not be prose stylists, but I wish them well.

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