Moneyweb spoke to Brand South Africa (Brand SA) GM of marketing Sithembile Ntombela on the sidelines of the organisation’s Nation Brand Forum, on what it takes to market the country and build its brand.
Brand SA has been marketing South Africa for 14 years. What have been some of the challenges, achievements and milestones that the entity’s faced?
Brand SA is the official custodian of the nation’s brand. We were established in 2002 and given a two-prong mandate, which asks how do we get South Africans to rally behind South Africa? So that [mandate] is more of an inward one that evokes pride; that evokes patriotism.
The other mandate speaks to how we position South Africa as an investment destination of choice, which then speaks to how we manage the reputation of the country.
A highlight includes the coordination of stakeholders working towards one vision, which was in 2009 going into 2010 for the World Cup. This showed that that is a formula that works; that’s a formula that will need to be replicated going forward. When a multi-pronged stakeholder approach is utilised, a lot gets done quicker.
So it’s really the role that we play as Brand SA to influence the core carriers of the brand ‘South Africa’ internationally in getting these people to understand the issues of reputation and image, and therefore, how do we then better work and position the country? I think we have made strides, the Nation Brand Forum on Wednesday August 24] is a typical example of how that came to life.
Some of the departments have utilised Brand SA in the past for events like Afcon [Africa Cup of Nations]. So it means we work very closely with sports. When the South African team went to the Olympics in the UK in 2012, it was the same thing. They consulted Brand SA to ask what image we were trying to project from a look and feel, but also from an ethos perspective. So I think in that space we are doing very well.
Where we have challenges, I think it’s really in how we influence despite adversity. How do we highlight our achievements and change the narrative so that it’s not as negative? Collectively we can be a people that speaks unitedly in a cohesive way in building towards a better South Africa.
We know when negative news breaks – as in the case of finance minister Pravin Gordhan being summoned by the Hawks and facing possible arrest – it has an impact on the rand and how investors view the country. In the face of that, how do you manage South Africa’s brand?
The challenges will always be there. When you look at nations like the US and China, they still have political challenges. I think what they have gotten right is their ability to summersault. I think we, as a resilient South Africa, are going through that phase. We are a developing nation that is faced with many challenges, but instead of being overwhelmed and being overtaken by this negativity, Brand SA has chosen to work with people who actually want to promote the good news. That doesn’t say we are totally ignorant of what’s happening, but our strategy is that for every bad story, we will tell three good stories, because a lot of good stories are not told.
The country’s proposition is based on an essence that says South Africa inspires new ways. Our job is to continuously look for those different and inspiring new ways and showcase our value proposition.
How can the ordinary man on the street help to build the nation’s brand?
Brand SA has a programme called ‘Play Your Part’. It came from the essence that we have a vision, and for the vision to come to life we need people. Hence people need to play their part to make it happen. For ordinary South Africans, they have to challenge themselves and challenge the status quo and ask, ‘What can I do in my own area to be the best that I can, to make sure that I’m contributing towards a positive country?’
To give an example, I always say to people that I mingle with, if you are an A-student you are blessed. But have you shared your talent with other students who are struggling? Maybe help over the weekend by offering extra classes? It’s those kinds of acts of kindness that collectively have a big impact.
Imagine a lot of straight-A students doing that on subjects that are a challenge like maths, science and technology – we know those are competitiveness pillars for any country. The [stronger] you are at maths and science, the [better off] you are, because the skill is there. It starts as basic as that. The same is true of police officers – are you doing what you are supposed to be doing as a police officer and as a public servant? That means that you have to play your part and promote service excellence.
We are running a programme with the Department of Home Affairs where we are influencing them and saying that they are the first contact with tourists, potential investors, but what role do they play?
So we are actually throwing it out there to people and saying you can play a part. They can visit Brand SA’s website and see which areas they would like to participate in. Volunteerism doesn’t end, like in July where every day is Mandela Day.
We’ve also partnered with GEM, which is also promoting active citizenship in the country. So there’s a number of things that people can do – they just have to visit our website to see how they can get involved.
Are there Brand SA activities in the townships?
Absolutely. We take the Play Your Part programme into townships. Our target is to go to nine provinces. We have regional activations where we work with government structures and civil society in that province. Last month we were in Limpopo where we were activating entrepreneurship. [During] the CEO Sleepout, we asked people to contribute books. We collected about 3 500 books, and those books went to [township] schools.
And that’s our role as Brand SA. As the preachers of Play Your Part, we are taking it very seriously. So we go into those communities, work with ordinary people and ask them to mobilise others that are involved in this space. Because when people see people who they know, they are more prone to help because they know it is not staged.
So we definitely have those programmes and they will continue to rotate year on year.
How can the private sector contribute to building South Africa’s brand?
It’s all about participation. We are trying to work with South African corporate entities so that when they establish operations beyond the borders of the country, we can communicate a cohesive and consistent message about the country’s value proposition.
So we need to work very closely with corporates because they become the brand carriers, the ambassadors – we have to influence at that level.
We started with Play Your Part to say, ‘guys, you have your CSI budget, work with us, complement us, adopt a patriotic message. This is where the vision 2030 is going.’ And that is where they can play their part.
With the commodity slump that has affected South Africa, how do we shift focus to and market other industries such as the car manufacturing sector, film production and tourism, as investment destinations?
We work very closely with the National Film and Video Foundation, which is an agency of the Department of Arts and Culture. We have realised that if we work with them, we are able to pitch South Africa more on the location front, because we offer beautiful landscapes and other assets. When you position a country like that, it attracts investment. It attracts people who didn’t know that the Vaal Dam (for example) existed. There’s a movie that was recently shot at the Vaal Dam, and someone asked is that really in South Africa?
And we learn from the best, I mean Rwanda has become a film destination. As Brand SA we can learn from those [types of examples] and adopt as well as adapt them. We work very closely with those agencies.
A pillar in Play Your Part is about entrepreneurship. One of the other pillars is to empower, so through meeting you I then connect you to someone who is in your space so they can empower you. We also work with the IDC (Industrial Development Corporation), because it provides funding. When we host these seminars on how to start a business, we partner with them and they’ll give a talk on, for an example, how to draft a business plan. So for us, it is critical that we start at that level, because you build inward and then it grows externally.
How do you protect the image of South Africa in the era of social media?
Managing 52 million-odd people is a challenge; managing the millions who are also on social media is even worse because of the freedom of expression. But as Brand SA, we have decided that we need to promote values. People feel they can freely say something, but don’t understand the end results – how what they say impacts on the country. We will continue with our Nation Brand Masterclass that we host for normal South Africans. If people want, they can come to the masterclass and enjoy it.
We’ve got strong relations with the education institutions, because we know the people that are active on social media are the youth. We have an academic programme where we go to tertiary institutions and give a lecture on how to market the country and what the role of reputation is and how what you do in your own space can have a negative impact on the country. So we are active in that space because we are influencers.
What global issues affect the South African brand?
With globalisation, you house different people with different backgrounds and cultures, and that can have a ripple effect, because as you house more diversity there’s just so much that you need to try and regroup from a unity perspective.
There’s also the issue of COP17 on global warming. Weather is unpredictable and can be catastrophic. The economic effects that come from such events can dent the country’s image.
But these are the global issues that are starting to penetrate most of the nation brand countries.
How does Brand SA choose what to profile to help sell the country?
Simon Anholt, considered the father of Nation Branding, speaks about important pillars around a nation brand construct. Those are the pillars that basically drove the conversation at Nation Brand Forum. We spoke about pillars such as tourism and its role in contributing towards nation building; about arts and culture and the people aspect because people are part and parcel of building any nation brand. We spoke about investments and trade, the shift of what we import versus what we export; you have to strike the right balance so we work very closely with people in that space. Governance is the last pillar and it speaks to how we lead as a country, but also the good stuff that we do.
For instance, Gift of the Givers are our partner and they go beyond borders and build and enhance South Africa’s reputation as a nation that cares. Which is also why we had a conversation about Ubuntu and how we articulate and provide it.
So from a profiling perspective, we cover all those pillars because we believe that if a nation brand construct strikes all those, then you are showcasing all the real beauty of the nation’s brand.
Do you think it’s easier to unite people using sport and how would you use other avenues to unite the country?
Research that we have done at Brand SA shows that sport is one of the biggest mobilisers, but guess what? Religion has become another one. Through religion peolple are able to connect with themselves and group in with multiple groups. South Africans have different religious groups, but religion is still a big mobiliser.
We are tapping into faith-based organisations. We are working with those and forming and strengthening those partnerships, because we know that’s our key to unlocking and accessing people who do not know about Brand SA.
What are the perceptions that other countries have about South Africa?
On the continent it’s two-prong: They are really inspired by South Africa because we have positioned ourselves as a country that grows with Africa. We have become that centrepiece. For instance, investors will come into South Africa and then fly to Ethiopia. So we have become that trading partner.
Our culture and people also impact positively on perceptions about the country – particularly our music. However, we must manage perceptions that arise from incidents like the attacks against foreign nationals.
How is South Africa’s brand performing compared to other national brands in Brics?
We are doing very well. South Africa’s participation in BRICS tells the story of a country that contributes to humanity as a whole since this block aims to advance the developmental agenda of the south.
How would Brand SA boost investor confidence?
We work with the JSE, because we know when there is a crisis, investors check the stock exchange. The JSE is a strategic partner for us that is [as] a disseminator of positive news. Brand SA is a partner to all the financial institutions that have come together to say, “actually, we all have a role to play. And we are all coming to say yes we acknowledge our differences, but our agenda is bigger.’
So you have to always sway the focus of investors to the projection of Vision 2030, which articulates clearly where South Africa will be as a nation brand.
This article was sponsored by Brand South Africa