Chris Harrison: Time For African Brands. Because Global Brands Weren’t Built For Here

When you travel, are you struck by the sameness of consumerism? I know I am. Walk down the streets of London, or Johannesburg. Browse the malls in Hong Kong or Lyon. It can be hard to know which country you are in.

When you travel, are you struck by the sameness of consumerism? I know I am. Walk down the streets of London, or Johannesburg. Browse the malls in Hong Kong or Lyon. It can be hard to know which country you are in.

The shampoos are the same; the soft drinks are too. So are the fast food outlets and bank branches. They are global brands that have swept the world, and right now they dominate.

But consider this: in their past success lies their future vulnerability.

Simply because they were built in a way that is less and less appropriate to our times.

These brands were designed for rich Western countries with rich Western tastes. Then as the world began to globalise in the 1990’s, they were adapted for poorer markets. We’ve all seen that adaptation. Mainly it demanded smaller pack sizes – and affordability and convenience became the global marketers’ watchword. So we got affordable and convenient detergent, chocolate powder, toothpaste, and chewing gum. Then we got affordable and convenient airlines and banks (which weren’t either). Then we got affordable and convenient mobile telephony. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

But what we didn’t get were brands built for developing markets like Africa.

Given a fresh start, no one would build a global brand for today’s modern world. They would sideline the one billion rich, ageing niche market that is Western Europe and the USA. Instead, they would design a brand for 85% of the world’s population, who inhabit developing markets.

They would design a brand whose functional delivery met those consumer needs, and whose emotional benefit spoke to their hopes. And, do you know what, they might have a winner on their hands.

This week I have been talking to a VCP (A Very Clever Person). My good friend Simon Silvester, who has written an excellent book called Dominate. It’s about building global brands for developing markets. And over the next few weeks I will share some of his wisdom with you, and try to contextualise it for Africa. I may even make some copies available to diligent readers of this column.

Simon places great emphasis on marketers understanding zeitgeist, which I always thought was an Austrian cheese spread. It turns out instead to be ‘ the spirit of the times’. (Never stop learning, that’s what I say.)

Getting a brand to ‘feel right’, to be in tune with popular sentiment is a special skill. And to do that, you have to be ‘in market’ as deeply as possible. Western-based global brands have not been very successful at this. In the 1990’s Eastern Europe was a cold and gloomy place. Most Chinese were illiterate subsistence farmers. Only a few privileged Indians had a TV or a mobile phone. But over time, circumstances improved. And improved again.

Today in many developing markets, consumers are free from oppressive regimes, have their own voice thanks to mobile telephony, and are the first generation in their family to have a non-subsistence existence.

But global brands don’t recognise this because they are managed from the West, where over the same period times have got harder and harder. In the I990’s, the US stopped enjoying full employment, the Japanese bubble burst and the French began to wrestle with the twin demons of youth unemployment and immigration policy.

Here in Africa, anyone who has ever had a business relationship with a multinational knows what this means. Gloomy conference calls, and Q3 budget cuts, and hiring freezes because ‘ the US isn’t going to make its numbers.’ And here we are, surrounded by (qualified) optimism and double-digit growth.

As Simon says,” To Westerners the glass is half empty, to the rest of the world it’s half full.”

There is a chance for global brands to assimilate and align with the zeitgeist. To be more positive; more creative. To back a few hunches.

But how much better placed are brands which are the product of developing societies? Brands built in the school of African ‘hard knocks’. Brands which evidence the optimism of a Continent where children walk miles to school in clean clothes everyday, and where the businessman’s word and handshake still stand for something.

Let’s look out for these brands. If you know them, mail me about them and let’s celebrate their relevance together.

Chris Harrison is Chairman of Young & Rubicam Brands, Africa. This article has been republished with his kind permission

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Image by TheFutureIsUnwritten