In Africa, Identity must be a central feature of brand strategies

As I arrived at the third viewing platform which is closest to the largest section of the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, I was awed by the power and majesty of the falls, just like my fellow starry-eyed visitors who for the most part were taking selfies.

Not to be left behind, I looked around for someone who could take a picture of me next to the mighty falls and noticed two young men who were producing a video that, I imagined, will appear on the social platform of the one being filmed.

The cellphone “cameraman” must have been in his early twenties, and so was the “star”. My nosy self could not help but listen to the “live recording”, and I heard the young star telling his “fans” how wonderful it was to be at the falls.

Although a sight like this is fairly ubiquitous, the idea of ordinary youths in Rural Zimbabwe broadcasting themselves to the world is an indication of a powerful set of trends that brands should pay attention to, if they are to sustain and grow their share of engagement, positive sentiment and reputation.

Audiences are now micro-influencers

As a strategic communication professional, I have for the longest time had a challenge using the word “audiences” with colleagues or clients, mostly because it suggests that the audience is merely “receiving” a “message”.

In this era, anyone reading this certainly agrees that anyone a “message” has the ability to endorse, amplify or even discredit the message and the brand that is behind it.

Assuming that the young “broadcaster” I met at the Victoria Falls already has the attention, hearts, minds, and trust of the people who are connected to him via social platforms, he is a micro-influencer that any brand would benefit from engaging with.

He is no longer an “audience” but rather a channel through which messages are turned into social conversations.

Identity is the lens

A brand that connects to the identities of individuals and social groups stands the best chance of being understood and being positively amplified.

Considering that the fear of public speaking is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders, or heights, it takes much stimulus for an individual to self-broadcast, let alone to amplify another brand’s message.

Studies in human brain activity indicate that there are three mechanisms that are at play when it comes to identity: what a person thinks about herself, what others think about her and how she reacts to what others think about her. This plays out at individual, social group and race levels.

The complex interactions between these factors that shape identity must be studied by brand architects and integrated into strategies. On a continent with 55 national identities and close to 2000 languages, this is no small task. But one that cannot be ignored.

Mobile platforms have democratized the way we communicate

Gone are the days when traditional media outlets are the only effective channel for communicating messages to all the social categories.

Social media platforms, micro-influencers, community media, and local-language platforms will continue to rise in influence, driven by the growth in the adoption of smartphones whose price has been dropping steadily in the region.

Actually, significant social and demographic groups are already leapfrogging from using traditional media ecosystems in favor of online platforms in Africa. It is expected that, by the end of 2020, close to 725 million will be subscribed to mobile services, with an average monthly use of mobile data pushing closer to 4.3 GB.

In this highly digitized ecosystem, the power is shifting to people's handset and Brands that become multi-platform publishers with the ability to produce highly customized and targeted content will reap the rewards of this fast-growth market.

The biggest challenge

How can brands navigate this increasingly complex landscape?

There can only be one answer: only those brands that are willing to be humble and adopt an authentic identity that fits in the local fabric can secure mind- and heart-share that characterize hyper-growth companies.

This is not just about “saying what people want to hear” or even launching myriads of Corporate Social Responsibility projects. It’s about being clear and consistent about what the brand stands for at its core. This “identity” doesn’t have to be static, in fact, it shouldn’t be. It should be reviewed on a continuous basis to ensure that the company is listening and responding, defending its values whilst accommodating criticism and evolution.

The tough part is that this may mean sacrificing short term financial gains in favor of being embedded in the local fabric of society. It also means that individuals outside of the brand have to see themselves in the individuals who operate inside it. This, therefore, entails that companies have to treat their employees as if these were prime time news anchors holding a social megaphone. Because that’s what they are.