Brand Building — Crossing Over Continents and Time

Brands are like viruses. They need to be exposed to new hosts wherein they can proliferate and mutate. These are lessons for nation brand builders.

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The first Cabinet of the Republic of Zambia upon independence from the United Kingdom, 24 October 1964

This article has been written by Joel O’Loughlin, Co-founder & Managing Director of  MyZambia MyAfrica, a member of The Best of Zambia. 

A brand simply represents the sum of people’s perceptions of an individual, company, product, service or place.

Derived from the Old Norse brandr, meaning to burn, branding started quite literally. Cattle branding was one of the earliest examples of representing ownership over property and, through association over time, connoting taste and quality.

Branding was not a term Josiah Wedgwood, the 18th-century English potter, would have comprehended. Yet his understanding of how it works was so instinctive that he is acclaimed by some as the father of modern branding.

Wedgwood opened his first pottery workshop in Staffordshire (United Kingdom) in 1759. By the time of his death 36 years later, his wares were being sold worldwide and he had accumulated a fortune worth about £500 million in modern terms. Indeed, some commentators have compared him to Steve Jobs in his ability to successfully harness design, technology, advertising and creative showmanship to position his brand.

Above all, Wedgwood’s strategy relied on fashionable appeal. He ensured his products were hyped in the press and elaborately displayed in his posh London showrooms. He was the first to understand the value of celebrity endorsement, courting painters, architects and other fashion trendsetters of the day.

One of them was Queen Charlotte, for whom Wedgwood produced a tea set. He capitalised on his status as potter to Her Majesty, by marketing his Queen’s Ware range that helped extend his brand into the mass market while stimulating appeal for his more upmarket products.

As a result, Wedgwood’s brand equity soared. He was regularly able to sell his products at double the average price, cementing his place as the creator of the first global luxury brand.

Fast forward to Birmingham (United Kingdom) in the 1960’s and 1970’s to the household of a first generation of immigrants from the island of Nevis, in the Eastern Caribbean. My father had been a very successful fisherman in Nevis. He was born in St Kitts in the 1920’s.

This young arrival to the English shores heard Johnny Nash singing ‘Hold Me Tight’, and my soul resonated at fever pitch. Soon, this new sound was everywhere around, at the youth club, my school dances and on the radio Desmond Dekker crackled with his hit-song ‘Israelites’. Like the unfortunate children of Hamelin, the music lured me away from studies into an underworld of sound systems and Jamaican record shops. From that time, reggae has become the soundtrack of my life, with every milestone marked by melodic mnemonics. My first car cruised to the melancholy of Junior Byles’ ‘Curly Locks’. Jerry Jones’ ‘Still Waters’ returns Sue to arms which last held her 30 years ago. And Derrick Harriot’s ‘Eighteen with a Bullet’ plugged me at my 21 st birthday party.

In the intervening decades reggae has made the leap from a localised Jamaican art form to a globally recognised cultural expression. Replicating how this happened should be a preoccupation of African nation-branders.

Wedgwood came to appreciate that brands are like viruses. They need to be exposed to new hosts wherein they can proliferate and mutate.

As with reggae, I believe that the African diaspora has a powerful role to play in pollinating fields abroad with the spores of cultural products and services. Even though the internet can act as a powerful carrier wave, without ardent aficionados creating the scene in the new host nation, cross over does not take root.

The Caribbean diaspora in England played a crucial role in creating an export market for reggae, paving the way for it to cross over. In the United States, Jamaicans in New York mutated the toasting styles of Jamaican DJ’s like U-Roy and Big Youth, into rap music. In both places, mobile sound systems freed late night ravers from the restrictions of nightclub licensing hours, and having to pay a lot of cash to listen to other people’s music.

But how to recognise what is hot and what is not?

I believe that outsider eyes are a big help here! Chris Blackwell of Island Records was critical to marketing Bob Marley & The Wailers, repackaging them as a rock band. If Governments are in on the act of nation-branding, they should partner with creative industry producers who understand what is hot and invest in the marketing needed to successfully cross them over. Efforts must also be made to ensure that the repatriation of revenues from abroad to the host African producers, which means an investment in protecting intellectual property and performing rights. According to research carried out by a Victoria University of Wellington PhD student, despite the popularity of reggae music around the world (worth circa US $140 million), the economic return to Jamaica is very low with most music rights being foreign owned.

I cannot understate the transformative power of films, and we nation-branders should pay close attention to their ability to blaze the trail for other cultural products and services.

Jimmy Cliff gained international fame as the star of the 1972 movie, ‘The Harder They Come’. The movie was a major cultural force in the worldwide spread of reggae, documenting how the music became a voice for the poor and the dispossessed. The soundtrack was a joyous celebration of the defiant human spirit that refuses to be suppressed. For me, the movie also created an understanding of Jamaican lifestyle and culture across the world. Even with the issues of performing rights being unresolved, the vibrant film industry in Nigeria is a striking example to the rest of the Continent, with Nollywood revenues estimated in 2014 to be in excess of US $3.3 billion.

I started with Johnny Nash. I had no idea back then that Bob Marley was touring with him, transforming a mediocre American soul singer into one of the early reggae global chart toppers. His second hit single ‘Stir It Up’, was written by Marley, who later reprised it in his breakout ‘Catch A Fire’ album. In nation-branding like in the music industry, persistence pays.

Jimmy Cliff sang hauntingly: “Many rivers to cross, but I can’t seem to find my way over”. As Zambians and friends of Zambia celebrated the 53 rd Independence Day celebrations on 24 October 2017, let’s start a conversation about how nation branding can cross over.

My call to action is simple

Over the next 47 years leading up to Zambia’s centenary, let us take action that honours the efforts of her founding fathers – Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, Simon Kapwepwe and Harry Nkumbula. Their leadership set the firm foundation for us all to build a prosperous nation and positively brand Zambia on the international stage.

Written by Joel O’Loughlin
MyZambia MyAfrica Co-founder & Managing Director
Friend of Zambia
E: [email protected]

www.myzambiamyafrica.com
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