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  Is Africa Misbranded?   Is Africa Misbranded?  Melissa Davis  
Is Africa Misbranded? Never mind that some of its nations have done particularly well in terms of growth and stability—Botswana, for example, was one of the world’s fastest growing economies in the last decade. Yet, the reputation of Africa’s overpowering identity remains more dominant than that of her own nations.

Perhaps it’s because the noisiest and most widespread branding of Africa is currently coming from outside of the continent. Africa’s dominant image has been created by the charity brands: the 1985 Live Aid to provide food for Ethiopia, 2005’s Live 8, “Make Poverty History,” G8 politics, Sir Bono and Sir Bob, celebrity adoptions, and Vanity Fair covers. Such campaigns can play a positive role—a strong public voice can put ground swells of pressure on politicians and instigate change. But, en masse, these campaigns have a tendency to create a perception of Africa as a continent that is beyond hope: too much poverty, too much death, and an overwhelming sense of too many problems with too few coherent solutions.

For all the good intentions of the campaigners, the tragic reality is that even the charity branding is not working. Despite the awareness and the pleas—and the impression that much is being done for “Africa”—overall international aid to Africa has consistently fallen during the last decade; most of the G8 promises to help Africa have not been met; unfair international trade rules remain a key issue; and external funding for manageable diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria is simply not enough. The newspaper columns, the concerts, and the international declarations remain in the realms of rhetoric.

While it is impossible to deny that within Africa lies critical, complex, and extraordinarily challenging issues, it must also be acknowledged that she is a continent of 54 countries and one of vast contrasts: Zimbabwe still attracts tourists to the stable enclave of Victoria Falls while the rest of the country collapses; its neighbor, South Africa, is experiencing high levels of economic growth, tourism, and foreign investment, while shouldering a reputation for violent crime; Mozambique has become a hot-spot for backpackers and other tourists after decades of civil war. Morocco in the north has successfully become a “European” travel destination, almost distinct from the rest of Africa. Yet any “good” stories of growth, strong leadership, and achievements are too often overshadowed by persistent news of the bad.

“Africa is suffering from the ‘continent branding effect’ where every country shoulders the reputation of the others,” says government advisor Simon Anholt. “One of the greatest obstacles to Africa’s economic development is the well-meaning attempt from people in the West branding Africa as a ‘basket case.’ But a charity brand is fundamentally different from a growth brand. So Africa is simultaneously trying to present two incompatible ideas: a desirable destination and a charity case.”


A re-brand for African countries?
The tables, however, are beginning to turn. Attempts are being made by individual African countries to create identities that stand out from the dominant Africa continent brand. Much of these branding exercises are aimed at the business and tourism sectors. Ethiopia “re-branded” to lose its previous famine-ridden image in favor of foreign investment and tourism. Namibia clearly recognized that celebrity endorsement can boost a country brand by allowing “Brad and Angelina” (plus baby) to their shores. Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo are actively courting international business to attract investment in their post-conflict states.

Countries like Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, and Botswana have successfully positioned their wares to appeal to the high-end traveller. Even Nigeria has attempted a repositioning by launching its “Heart of Africa” campaign to a London audience “to promote Nigeria’s national brand assets.” Its message seeks to convince the UK’s business minds that there is more to Nigeria than oil and conflict.

But there is the danger of branding for branding’s sake or mistaking a tourism campaign, website, or advertising as a country “re-brand”:

“The first principle of brand development is to do it for a good measurable reason. It’s amazing the amount of money and effort that is wasted on country branding ‘because everyone’s doing it’,” says Douglass de Villiers, CEO at Interbrand Sampson Africa. “The second principle of brand development is that branding is not advertising. Our TVs and press are inundated with ‘country adverts’—the ads are becoming generic and seem unsupported by other brand development activities.

“In essence, when embarking on the development of a country brand, the reasoning and activities should be based on a solid country business plan—growing GDP and sustaining GDP is usually a perfect place to start.”

South Africa has long invested in its own brand, both inside the country and internationally. Much can be learned from South Africa’s experiences of shifting perceptions (and realities) in the transition from an apartheid state, which was eventually boycotted by the international community, to a democratic country in 1994. In hindsight, significant progress has been made over the last decade.

“The success of creating and consolidating the South African brand has been its comprehensive and people-centric approach to country branding. It rolls together both the tangibles and intangibles and highlights the touch-and-feel components of branding,” says John Battersby, UK country manager for South Africa’s International Marketing Council.

“The diversity, warmth, and generosity of the people—the ‘ubuntu’—is what visitors really take away from South Africa. And that is why the music, the sounds, and the rhythm of the nation are as important as the wildlife, mountains, and beautiful beaches. So the brand that emerges is as tangible as Coca-Cola or Nike and it is the sum of all its parts—tourism, economic potential, and human diversity and togetherness.”

South Africa may be on the right track—and is well aware that there are more issues to iron out before the country hosts soccer’s World Cup in 2010—but many other nations still lag behind. “The good news is that African governments are thinking about this a lot,” says Anholt. “But they are reaching the wrong conclusions. Expensive advertising and PR campaigns, logos, and slogans are a wicked waste of taxpayers’ and donors’ money. A reputation cannot be constructed; it has to be earned.”

The African Renaissance
While Africa’s nations search for their voice with “brand Africa,” the regional context must not be overlooked. It is important that an African national brand is clear on its position as part of the African continent, while offering something distinct from her neighbors—the nation is the sub-brand within the larger continent brand. South Africa’s approach has included this factor: "There needs to be a balance between South Africa as part of Africa and South Africa itself; the South Africa brand does not exist in a vacuum,” says Battersby. “Our approach capitalizes on the specific strengths of South Africa: it is both a gateway and a catalyst to speed the revival of Africa."

Indeed, South Africa has often positioned herself, and been perceived, as a lead player in Africa. President Thabo Mbeki famously proposed an “African Renaissance” in a speech in 1998—it was a rallying cry for African countries to unite and throw off any remaining colonial hangovers: “…out of Africa reborn must come modern products of human economic activity, significant contribution to the world of knowledge, in the arts, science and technology, new images of an Africa of peace and prosperity.” It could also be interpreted as a call for a regional repositioning of Africa on the international stage.

Perhaps the most important aspect of “brand Africa,” and one that seems to be absent from the international charity-focused brand, is the involvement of African people. As de Villiers says: “The countries’ branding activities will need to focus on a multitude of audiences, all with different interests and drivers. But importantly—very importantly—the country also needs to focus on its people as their backbone to the brand’s development. If the country’s own people don't buy the brand, then the intended audience won’t—at least not for long!”

The future Africa?
An effort to “brand” Africa, and her countries, does not mean glossing over the troubling issues to promote only the good. But it is a tactic of balancing perceptions. As an African trade representative commented: "creating a brand for a country is about striking a balance—you need to intensify the positive image that people know about you, and balance this with addressing the challenges that you experience as a country."

Africa could benefit from a shift in her current identity: by a brand that is managed from within, with a vision that is not overshadowed by charity and donor messages, or by a one-sided media image. Emerging country brands must also be realistic and authentic. A website or tourism campaign may be a component of a brand campaign, but it will have little impact without a broader brand development structure and vision.

“We currently rely on the stereotype of the celebrity driven, paternalistic helping hand that belies the true power of the African people and their cultural landscape," says Iain Ellwood, head of strategy at Interbrand UK. "We are still waiting for the authentic branding of African nations.”

Perhaps only then will the dominant image of a “no hope” Africa be a brand of the past.     



Melissa Davis works in branding and sustainability. She is a former reporter for the Associated Press and a co-founder of Bite Communications. She has written two books on branding, The Fundamentals of Branding (AVA Books, 2009) and More than a Name: An Introduction to Branding (AVA Books, 2005). Follow her on Twitter at mdavis_CSR

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Is Africa Misbranded?
 very good observation. as an african myself i agree with you. but it should also be noted that this brand of a hopeless africa is also encouraged by most of us africans,especially the leaders. it seems to pay more(aid,grants,NGO support and donations) portraying a hungry face than showing stability and self sustainabilty. if the donors could seriously tag thier contributions to certain benchmarks, then we could see more postive branding from more african countries. 
mwesigwa herbert, business manager, hk promotions - August 13, 2007
 Thank you for an inspiring article filled with truth and thought provoking insight. Im from Botswana (currently residing in Joburg) and know first hand that Africa is not all about starving babies and AIDS, for centuries we have been the source of many a product from the drum to all sorts of precious minerals which the world has greedily taken with no regards to the people behind these things. This must change and the re-branding of Africa is a part of this process, I agree that it starts with every citizen in every country, we must change the way we see ourselves and our place in the world. Our leaders attend international conferences with beggar bowls and the people adopt that mentality, lets start learning how to do for self and bring back old African ideals which associated us with hard work, integrity, honour and community not laziness and corruption. 
Game Bantsi, Student (BCOMM Marketing and Management), Monash University South Africa - August 13, 2007
 Africa as a nation can't brand themselves (positively) until they get their act together... 
anonymous - August 13, 2007
 Great article. The image of a continent in poverty is certainly a contributing factor to perceptions of African Countries. Another I believe is the notion that Africa is a single country or place. I'm always amused when I hear people say they are going to Africa - not Botswana or South Africa, but Africa. Kinda like saying you're visiting Asia or Europe. This may also have to do with streotypes, for example, Africa has wildlife and safaris and that's it - there's no room for each country to stand on it's own attributes. I think this has more to do with education 
Cliff, Associate Creative Director - August 13, 2007
 Simply fabulous article!!!! Post it everywhere. Let us link to it from our websites. It is so informative.

I just wish sometimes they would tell the other half of the story i.e. that African countries, like any other country also has it's educated elite, but we always see the dying, starving, etc.

Thanks for a job well done!
And then I always wonder just how much of the money from these great events really go to the people who need it. 
Linda Bailey, Managing Director, MWI Custom Beverages - August 13, 2007
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