THE POST-APARTHEID South African socio-political and business landscape has been an amazing mecca for branding companies.
With the advent of the new era, a lot of apartheid era brands that were either offensive towards the majority black population, or simply too narrowly focused on appealing only to the minority white population, disappeared overnight or underwent processes of modernisation / rebranding to achieve a broader appeal.
Some of this was done for reasons of political correctness, while others saw the potential economic gains of attracting a black middle-class that was set to grow over time. Old slogans were replaced with the new and, where slogans never existed, smart branding professionals helped organisations come up with by-lines of all kinds to demonstrate that they fully embraced the new South Africa project!
Brands are like icebergs
At a high-level, there are two essential components to any brand; the first one is the logo, which is like the visible part of the iceberg. The logo is often the first thing that people remember about a brand. Often very appealing to the eye, it is the visual interpretation of the second part of the brand, the submerged part of the iceberg. Like with any iceberg, the latter part is always larger and serves as the pillar upon which the visible part and everything else rests. It contains the values, the strategic intent, the raison d’être, and the entire machinery that gives life to the brand.
As part of the post-apartheid rebranding festival, some organisations chose to place much emphasis on simply changing the “look-and-feel” or logos; while others went beyond the superficial and evaluated their corporate values and readiness to welcome and be a home for previously marginalised professionals in mid-level, senior, and executive management positions.
However, the landscape is still littered with superficially rebranded organisations that look and sound good on the outside, while being employed by them is often a nightmare for many black professionals. This is because the corporate culture and values – which require a lot more work – have not been given the same review and clean-up as the logo.
Corporate chimeras galore
Many black professionals get attracted by huge pay packages and promises of possible promotion over time. They pack their bags and move across the country to pursue their dreams, only to be disappointed soon after attending their first management meeting.
This happens when they realise that those with whom they’re meant to work were never properly prepared for their arrival and that archaic, static, closed corporate cultures they find in place get used, in some cases inadvertently, to maintain glass walls and ceilings that restrict the impact of the newly arrived black professional.
In cases like this – and there is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there – the outward facing corporate slogans and brand identity are attractive; but, once inside the business, the brand promise falls flat.
In the end, many disappointed professionals end-up packing their bags and returning home, or accepting alternative job offers to escape the corporate nightmare they’ve been faced with. For the unfortunate ones, this seemingly endless search for greener corporate cultural landing pads keeps playing itself out over and over again as they keep finding the same environments in other companies.
The more senior such black professionals are, the harder they find it to publicly discuss their plight. So they suffer in silence, their noses held high.
Empty slogans are not limited to the private sector
For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, the slogan used for marketing South Africa abroad – before the formation of the erstwhile International Marketing Council, now called BrandSA – used to be “A World in One Country”. There were many ways to look at this slogan; one could wear political glasses and see it as an attempt at making the separate development of different race groups, aka apartheid, look normal. But many opted to look at it from a purely commercial perspective, as describing the truly rich tapestry that South Africa is; faunal, floral, culinary, ethnic, cultural, etc..
That slogan has since been changed at least twice as those tasked with marketing South Africa abroad try to find ways to revive the South African promise. It first became ‘Alive with Possibilities” after the advent of our democracy before being changed again in 2012 to the current “Inspiring New Ways”.
The country’s political leaders, with the business elite in tow, often think of a new by-line when they make their annual pilgrimage to the World Economic Forum, in Davos. This year it was simply “South Africa is Open for Business”. It is a clear, simple, promise and invitation in one. But it will remain hollow if the leadership of this country, starting with politicians, fails to ensure that the promise and invitation are buttressed by solid values, predictable rules of engagement, an attractive economic climate, and the rule of law.