Five marketing lessons for brands looking to expand into the African market

By Neil Davidson

The economic pulse in Africa is quickening and businesses are starting to take note of the various commercial opportunities now at their disposal. Leading the charge are ambitious entrepreneurs, fast-growing African companies and multinational corporations (MNCs) – all of whom are helping to drive economic integration and business dynamism across the continent.

As a whole, Africa is made up of 54 countries, more than 1,500 languages and approximately 1.2 billion people. This demonstrates just how vast the business opportunity is, especially when coupled with the fact that its middle class is expected to grow to 1.1 billion people by 2060. It’s also the world’s youngest continent, with 60 per cent of Africans under the age of 25. The region is brewing with young entrepreneurial talent, and this only adds to the vibrant and energetic nature of African nations.  

But expanding into the world’s second-largest continent isn’t an easy feat. Businesses need to be aware of the challenges involved, as well as solutions for the obstacles they may end up facing.

Succeeding in Africa demands a deep understanding of a vast array of different markets and cultures. But all too often business leaders and marketers are guilty of making assumptions about what will work in a particular market, and of importing ideas that don’t work in a local context.

African nations are unique entities, and brands that don’t do their homework and understand the cultural nuances of these various markets could struggle to get traction.

We have worked with Diageo for more than ten years to deliver Pan-African marketing campaigns for leading beer brand, Guinness. It might come as a surprise to learn that Africa was the first continent outside of Ireland to brew Guinness and that five of Guinness’ leading markets, when it comes to volume, are in Africa. In recent years we have launched campaigns, in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.

During this time we’ve learnt a bit about what makes people tick in the countries that make up this vast continent, how they live their lives and how to build brands there. Here are my five top marketing lessons for brands that are looking to expand into the African market:

1. You need to think on a global and local level

There’s no denying the need for brands to develop campaigns at a global level, but it is critical that there is also an element of localisation. Don’t mistake Africa for a single territory. One billion of the world’s population live there, and yet global businesses present in Africa often adopt a rudimentary ‘one size fits all’ approach.

There is no ‘stereotypical’ African individual, and brands shouldn’t assume that something which works in Nigeria will perform as well in Kenya or Ethiopia. If you are considering expanding in the African market, then a local mindset will be pivotal to your success.

2. African audiences can be cynical and mistrusting of brands

The issue of trust is something brands have to consider across all their territories, but it’s particularly important in Africa.  Brands need to work hard to prove they are trustworthy, especially if they are delivering reward-based campaigns.

The prizes some brands offer in these types of campaigns can be fundamental to making life better by answering real human needs. Promotional prizes, like cash or product prizes, are strong incentives in these markets, as elsewhere, and marketers need to consider how they really connect with an audience with these rewards. However, in order make an impact with African people, brands need to work hard to build trust and prove that the prizes are for real. 

This is because there is often a huge amount of scepticism among Africans. Earlier this month, the Nigerian president had to issue an announcement where he denied being a clone, showing how deep the distrust of large organisations and governments runs

3. Mobile is a key communication channel to consider when delivering a campaign in Africa

Mobile is one of the fastest-growing communication channels in Africa, with recent research revealing that the number of unique mobile subscribers is set to reach 634 million by 2025. Kenya’s mobile phone penetration hit a staggering 95.1 per cent earlier in the year, followed closely by Nigeria which reached 84 per cent in March.

We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people accessing the internet via mobile devices. Research from last year showed that In Kenya and Senegal, more than 25% of people have a mobile broadband subscription, whilst in territories like Tanzania mobile is becoming increasingly appealing due to the unreliability of fixed-line internet access.

In our own work in Africa we have seen how useful mobile is at targeting a brand’s target audience, particularly when it comes to engaging younger audiences. In Guinness’s Every Minute Made of Black text-to-win campaign, we received 3.34 million mobile entries across Nigeria alone.

As always, while mobile is important, different cultures and countries have different relationships with mobile, so its key to understand this.

4. Africa is one of the most innovative territories when it comes to technology

There is often a perception among western marketers that Africa is ‘behind’ other more developed markets from a tech perspective. However, in many instances, African nations are far ahead of other parts of the world typically considered more ‘developed’. 

Africa is actually the home to a lot of technology world firsts. For instance, Nigerian inventor Osh Agabi has created a device that detects explosives and cancer cells.  Whilst this in itself isn’t a useful bit of tech for brands looking to roll out a campaign, it does show how Africa is incredibly forward thinking when it comes to developing new technologies.

Africa’s infrastructure is technologically advanced, and brands should bear this in mind when marketing and advertising in the region.

5. Like all markets, simple campaigns will have the best cut-through

Images speak louder and quicker than words – 65% of us are visual learners and images are processed 60,000 times more quickly than text.

Particularly in Africa, brands need to think carefully about how a campaign comes across visually and keep language and mechanics simple in order to make a real impact and effect a change in behaviour. One thing Africa shares with all other markets is that campaigns built on behavioural psychology, true insight and a clear idea will be the most effective.

So remember, you need to put the work in

Africa is an incredibly exciting region to expand into, and many businesses are already feeling the commercial benefit of a presence on this vast continent. But stealing a slice of the African market is a project that needs to be carried out with great care and consideration.

All too often, businesses make assumptions about what kinds of marketing strategies will and won’t work in an African market. Instead, they should be embedding themselves in the local context and understanding the cultural nuances of each country individually. A broad-brush approach will end up doing more harm than good.

Neil Davidson is the Managing Director at behavioural communications agency HeyHuman


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