/ 1 October 2014

Will the Malema-Mbalula twar buff up their brands?

Julius Malema and Fikile Mbalula share a joke at the opening of ANC House in Polokwane in 2011.
Julius Malema and Fikile Mbalula share a joke at the opening of ANC House in Polokwane in 2011.

A digital conference on Tuesday on the changing world of advertising and how brands need to move away from all talk and no action had me thinking: Maybe politicians need to do the same?

The idea of political parties as brands is not a new one. They’re identified by logos, colours and trademarks, just like any other commercial entity. The Economic Freedom Fighters even monetises its gear. You can log on to its website and buy party-politicised fashion. The red beret is a brand in itself. And now, in the digital age, representatives of those parties have room to become personal brands – a brand within a brand, if you must.

Julius Malema is a celebrity, a mascot – call him what you will – of the EFF. No different to Ronald McDonald of the McDonald’s franchise.

A few buzzwords were thrown around during the conference – big data, effective advertising, advertising for change (or good change) and delivering content that is useful, effective and relevant to the audience. The last one stood out. With all the platforms available to these brands to communicate, how are they delivering content that is useful and authentic to their audiences?

Was Malema and Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula’s twar (Twitter war), for example, relevant to any of their followers? And, at other times, does the branding and all the promises that come with the EFF and ANC actually deliver what they promise?

I remember a class during high school. Our English teacher was using different examples of advertising to illustrate figures of speech. “Beats the bends (Benz)” was one of the examples.

An advert by BMW (made in response to a Mercedes-Benz commercial filmed on the Chapman’s Peak road) was pulled because of its “beats the bends” tagline, which had the exact effect they were going for – they were saying that the BMW as a luxury car was better than the Mercedes-Benz, without actually saying so.

South Africa does not allow direct comparative advertising of that kind, so the Advertising Standards Authority pulled the ad. But I was hooked. It was the first time I had consciously become aware of the advertising business, the power of it all. I loved it and hated it at the same time. It was clever, and a trick – a clever trick played on consumers who fell for words instead of delivery. Because who could know from an ad which was the better luxury vehicle? Did it matter?

No, it only mattered that the advertising was so convincing that either car manufacturer would earn millions of rands because advertising appealed to consumers who would go out and buy their cars.

And so it is with politics, no? Politics and the power of consumerism. But consumers are changing.

According to the many speakers from the advertising industry at the Digital Edge Live conference, storytelling by brands and advertising needs to change. More than being authentic, they need to not just start but become part of a conversation that the public is already having.

I don’t think that before Tuesday’s twar, any member of the public was too perplexed about who could throw the better tweet-sult (an insult in the form of a tweet) between Mbalula and Malema. But hey, that’s the story we got.

It was entertaining, perhaps revealing, but as South African consumers, for lack of a better word, is anyone going to remember who said what when the next ballot rolls around? I certainly hope not.

And that’s a point that leads me to one of the other issues raised during the conference. Advertising needs to be less interruptive and more engaging, and the engagement with consumers needs to be useful. We were warned that in the next five years consumers will be keener to sign up with brands that offer them what they are looking for.

You could argue that Malema isn’t a brand. Or Mbalula. That they’re just cogs in the wheel of a much bigger picture. That they are not the EFF or the ANC, which would be fine, but there is no getting away from the fact that they work hard on their personal brands.

Malema with his red overalls and self-proclaimed revolutionary stance and, well … Has anyone visited Mr Razzle-Dazzle’s Instagram account recently? The Malema/Mbalula twar was good advertising for traditional reasons. If nothing else, they now have bigger and better Twitter accounts. If you didn’t know their personalities existed online, you certainly do now.

It was engaging – yes. Just as much as the “beats the bends” ad was. It started a conversation. But was it useful? Do consumers believe in the delivery of what they’re selling? And, more than that, are we convinced that they can deliver any more than before?