Rethinking Brand Positioning in Africa

Nana Yaa was the marketing director of Gambia’s newly launched digital and commercial bank. She had personally supervised the positioning of the corporate brand. The business launched its campaign as Gambia’s leading digital bank offering world-class customer solutions. Two years later, Nana Yaa was dismayed after discovering that most customers mistook the brand for a microfinance bank offering digital solutions. Several businesses in Africa face the same frustration after investing significantly in brand positioning. These businesses discover that there is often a mismatch between what the company claims the brand stands for and what the brand means to target customers. The critical question is, why do brand positioning efforts fail in Africa?

Businesses fail to position brands successfully because they don’t completely understand how consumer behaviour affects brand positioning on the continent. Our research reveals four pitfalls that hamper successful brand positioning in Africa.

Ignoring Cultural Differences in Purchase Behaviour: Every business operating on the continent understands that Africa is not one market. Africa represents a conglomeration of diverse needs.  However, few enterprises consider this reality when designing positioning statements. Previous articles highlighted how Anglophone and Francophone African buyers react differently to brand colours. Northern and Southern Nigerian buyers respond differently to positioning statements, brand campaign messages and advertisements.  Customers interpret positioning statements based on their cultural frame of reference. Ignoring cultural differences makes positioning statements become irrelevant.

Fixating on Ideal Consumers:

Businesses spend significant resources profiling ideal consumer segments with similar characteristics and needs. However, Africa’s reality is different because there is no perfect consumer segment. Consider the case of Kemi, a 31-year-old mother in Nigeria, an investment manager, party planner, church pastor on Sundays, and fashion designer. Like many consumers in Africa, Kemi is a hustler practising numerous occupations for survival. Consumers in Africa have diverse consumption profiles that are not straitjacketed. Brands positioned based on supposedly ideal consumer segments end up alienating customers and closing innovative opportunities.

Underestimating the High Aspirational Values of Customers:

African customers have higher aspirational values than customers in other continents. Yet, businesses design positioning statements that focus on immediate customer needs and ignore future aspirational needs. The failure to consider evolving aspirational values increases the chances for customers to switch to competing brands that offer higher aspirational discounts.  Several positioning statements on the continent do not consider the aspirations of target customers.

Misunderstanding Customer Buying Channels:

A common misconception is that premium customers buy only from premium channels while value customers buy exclusively from low-end locations.  The situation in Africa defies that logic. Insights on shopper behaviour in Africa’s unstructured markets suggest that premium customers patronise low-end channels such as street shops and open-air markets for some product or service categories. In contrast, low-end customers may occasionally buy through high-end or eCommerce outlets. The place of purchase is almost as important as what it purchased in Africa because purchase locations signal the aspirational values of customers. Businesses overlook the value customers place on purchase locations when thinking about positioning. The result is that companies come up with unsustainable positioning statements.

These insights summarise that positioning statements for consumers in Africa cannot be static and unidirectional but rather fluid to accommodate the diversity of consumption profiles. How can businesses in Africa position brands consistently without losing relevance?  Four recommendations are worth considering.

  1. Deepen your consumer segmentation: Businesses cannot take decisions about positioning based on demographic similarities alone. It is not enough to look for similar patterns in target customers’ age, occupation, and income levels. Diving deeper requires paying attention to differences in consumer behaviour while not losing sight of commonalities. For instance, Tolaram group in Nigeria capitalised on deep segmentation to create two distinct advertising campaigns for Colgate Toothpaste consumers in Northern and Southern Nigeria. These campaigns blended universal brand values with cultural nuances that resonated with customers in different regions. Deep segmentation also involves separating universal brand values from those that appeal to cultural segments.
  2. Customize and Test Offerings: Excellent brand positioning starts with designing customizable products, services and messages. As organisations customise offerings, they have more flexibility to customise messages to the target audience. In a study of consumers representing Nigeria’s six geo-political zones, the lead author found that customised positioning statements attract patronage but not brand loyalty in the long run. Businesses must align customised offerings and messages with valuable benefits to keep customer loyalty over time. Periodic testing of offerings and messages in multiple locations before scaling can be advantageous.
  3. Align Position with your route to market: Positioning statements must not only consider how customers perceive a brand but how the channel intermediaries place the brand within their portfolio of offerings. There is often a disconnect between the positioning statements of brand owners and those of their channel intermediaries. Distributors, retailers, resellers or agents have strategic objectives that influence how they place products or services they sell on behalf of manufacturers or service producers. Aligning position statements across the entire route to market is critical for success.
  4. Create flexible advertising campaign strategies: Little things count when designing advertising campaigns for multiple and diverse audiences. Businesses often fail to customise advertising messages properly because they overlook nuances that matter to diverse audiences. It is not enough to create the same campaign in various languages. Businesses must demonstrate empathy in crafting messages that diverse customers value and like to see in advertising campaigns.

Brand positioning is critical for consistent customer engagement in Africa. Businesses need to move from static to more flexible positioning statements that take Africa’s multifaceted consumers into account.

Authors

Uchenna Uzo, Faculty and Academic Director, Africa Retail Academy

Glory Eyinnaya, International Business Consultant and Founder, Kleos Africa

Emmanuel Adediran, Business Lead, mediaReach OMD

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Author

Uchenna Uzo, Glory Eyinnaya, and Emmanuel Adediran

Uchenna Uzo, Glory Eyinnaya, and Emmanuel Adediran

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Get To Know Uchenna Uzo

Uchenna Uzo

Dr Uchenna Uzo joined LBS in February 2002. He received his B.Sc and M.Sc in Sociology from the University of Lagos, and his Masters of Research in Management as well as Ph.D. in Management from the IESE Business School, Barcelona.

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