/ 29 November 2022

Rooting brand creativity in South African culture

African societies are organised around the requirements of duty, while Western societies are organised around individual rights

Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 

Having worked in advertising for many years, I have been tracking ad spend year-on-year and in 2018 the industry spent R40 billion on advertising. By 2021 the spend reached R47 billion. Almost all the briefs we still receive are for work in English, with almost half of these asking for the English work to be translated into various African languages. 

In a country as diverse as South Africa, with 12 official languages, English is spoken by just 9.6% of the population, now of 60 971 807 million people. This means that with most brand communication taking place in English, there are so many missed opportunities for them to gain more market share, attract more users or reach lapsed users. Herein lies the problem – you don’t gain market share by speaking to people in a language that is foreign to them. 

At the risk of being judged for my authenticity, I want to tell a story of my recent visit to a village near Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal, to stay with my in-laws. It was my first time in a traditional village, having grown up between the townships and suburbs of Newcastle and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. 

My lived experience in the village framed and deepened my understanding of how a community in a village goes about living their lives. It was beautiful to see and experience people of all ages, rich in culture and tradition, living in free-standing houses built on fertile land, growing their own food, sharing and consuming all the same brands us city folk consume daily. And there was not a stitch of English spoken in that village. Yes, theoretically I have always known this. But theory is far different from experience. 

Language is a huge part of culture and it is what connects us to each other. If brands want to connect in the same deep way, they need to speak in the same language as their audience. Brand builders must understand who the person is they are selling to and stop assuming they are all the same and applying theoretical assumptions from their air-conditioned boardrooms in the city. 

Considering the many idioms Africans use when expressing themselves, it is almost impossible to accurately translate that into the various languages without losing the true meaning. It is a fact that English cannot deliver the same level of connection as one’s mother tongue.

The shift has begun

As a previous jury president of the Pendoring Awards, which celebrate creative content in all its indigenous languages, I can see that the shift has begun, with more agencies and brands moving in this direction. There is a lot more original work being submitted that was conceptualised in that language, work that one knows could not have been translated work because it is so deeply insightful and linked to a particular culture. However, that work is mostly proactive work driven by agencies, and not necessarily work that is backed by considerable advertising spend.

If brands are supposed to be a part of the fabric of society, it is important that we help them connect with and evolve with society. A beautiful example is the SAB Izithakazelo Clan Cans campaign. The brand recognised that the cultural westernisation of Africa has become extremely prevalent and pervasive, so much so that western civilisation has taken precedence over African values and culture, meaning we are losing sight of who we are and forgetting our rich and proud heritage. 

Most African cultures have praise poems dedicated to their clan names. These clan praises hold an immense sense of pride in lineage, celebrating the ancestry and heritage passed down from generation to generation. 

The cans’ design was inspired by a variety of traditional African patterns. The back of each can carry a uniquely South African clan praise which is dedicated to the clan’s ideals, and way of living, as well as imbuing the richness of their lineage and heritage. For a brand to recognise the depth and importance of izithakazelo, iziduko, is truly remarkable. 

Another is the delightful Sunlight soap bar “Since Since” print ad done a few years ago that shows the various stages of the soap bar that hits home with Africans who use it for all sorts of reasons right until the very last bit is consumed. This piece of work resonated with me, as the delightful story that it told is what makes South Africa South Africa. It is beautiful insightful work like this that embraces and appreciates its consumers in an authentic way.  A brand’s personality is shaped by the personality of its nation and the sooner brands realise this and take the steps to make this an inclusive country where everyone and every culture is recognised and celebrated, brands will begin to see that marketing, when executed properly, is an investment that yields fruitful results.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.