A better Brand SA

With the appointment of Kingsley Makhubela as its new captain, Brand South Africa leaves the serried ranks of public institutions whose CEOs are acting.

Holding the record for longevity of service at Brand SA – I lasted 12 and half years as US country manager – I continue to take a morbid interest in the fortunes of this awkward duckling now nestled uncomfortably in Faith Muthambi’s ministry of truth.  From experience and the public record (budget documents, strategic plans, portfolio committee reports and the organisation’s own work product), I’d say that if Mr Makhubela truly wants to make a difference, rather than simply be there at Davos and the like, he has a slog ahead of him.

Here’s the basic problem.  Brand SA’s mandate is a mile wide while its capacity to carry it out – budget, marketplace credibility and political and institutional clout – is an inch thin.

Brand SA, it says in Treasury’s 2015 Estimates of National Expenditure, “is charged with building the brand reputation of the country in order to improve its global competitiveness and better position South Africa in the world, as well as promoting active citizenry and social cohesion across society.”

That is a ludicrously tall and scattershot order.

Treasury, where some would happily pull the plug on it altogether, is giving Brand SA just R173 million play with this year, rather less than the cost of Nkandla.  That has to pay for a staff allocation that has metastasized to 57, 23 of whom are in the top four pay grades (13-16) and cost the taxpayer an average of R1.4 million each. R120 million, down from R151 million last year, is left for everything else, including the PR, advertising and content suppliers who do most of the actual work.

Minitruth’s  2015/16-2019/20 Strategic Plan notes, rather archly, that “Brand SA spends its money on branding itself rather than branding the country”. That sounds like ministerial payback for organisation’s reluctance to help pay for her communications task team’s consultants and sandwiches. Fact is, Brand SA has little choice but to try and market itself.

Its mission is cross-cutting. Its method is “through and with” stakeholders. That is to say, its remit is to meddle in areas which others – SA Tourism, the DTI, Dirco, Treasury, to mention just a few –  understandably regard as their own domains. They don’t take well to being cut across by an outfit they see adding little value except as an ATM and provider of pull-up banners to decorate their own activities. It doesn’t help that Brand SA has struggled to sustain a reputation for thought leadership.

Mr Makhubela, a former ambassador to Portugal, director-general of tourism and head of state protocol, may be the man to turn it into an institution of genuine stature. The odds seem stacked against him, though.  Job one, in my view, would be to define, much more precisely than heretofore, a niche for the organisation that does not entail it having to play Chanticleer, the cock who thought the sun rose because he crowed.  No amount of government propaganda is going to save South Africa from sinking on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Performance would be more helpful.

Brand SA also needs to stop duplicating what others do better. Let Yusuf Abramjee’s Lead SA active citizen campaign do its excellent thing, and spend the Play Your Part budget on something else. Leave finding and telling the good news to Steuart Pennington and SA — The Good News. Leave trade and investment promotion to Trade and Investment SA. Every department has its own marketing section; make compliance with the brand manual mandatory and be done with it. Stop pretending to be able to commission decent advertising.  And get out of areas in which government is more likely to be a hindrance than a help. Brand SA’s Global South Africans diaspora outreach programme would be better driven – and better received — if left to Homecoming Revolution or some equivalent.

Invest instead in serious research, domestically and internationally, and share it. Develop a sophisticated understanding of how decision makers and those who influence them view the country, and how and via what channels their views are shaped. Map global flows of knowledge and influence, who needs to be reached and the best means of reaching them. Develop the data a country heavily reliant foreign savings needs to assess and move foreign sentiment. Be able to predict accurately, and place a value on, the global and local response to government action or inaction.

Done properly, with people who really know how to do the work, this could easily cost more than Brand SA’s current annual budget. But it would be of much greater value that what Brand SA is doing now.

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