Anver Versi meets Thebe Ikalafeng, the man behind the African brands rankings, and discovers that the chairman of Brand Africa and Brand Finance Africa is driven by the passion to completely reverse Africa’s often-tarnished image.
I first encountered Thebe Ikalafeng a few years ago when we met for dinner at one of the restaurants on Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg ahead of my participation in his inaugural Brand Africa Forum. Between introducing ourselves, sitting down and choosing drinks, Thebe had greeted, made quips, jokes and observations with a variety of people – diners, waiters, the maître d’ and a German tourist couple. All the while he was filling me in about his Brand Africa initiative.
I met him again last month in New York where he was to present the best African brands awards to Coca-Cola (global brand in Africa) and MTN (African brand) during the African Business Awards ceremony in New York.
Nothing about him had changed. If anything, he seemed to have more of the drive and energy that had so impressed me on the earlier occasion. Over the next few days, he bounced about from an array of UN and African-oriented events and talked to everybody in sight – and those out of sight, on his mobile.
The ease with which he connects with the ordinary person as well as those considered ‘the elite’ is perhaps what is truly remarkable about him. Despite his list of achievements, he has not lost the common touch. That is perhaps the secret of his success as a marketer and brand architect. After all, the companies he is involved in want, above all else, to connect with the common citizen, who forms their biggest customer base.
“Thebe,” I asked him, “do you ever go to sleep?”
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” he said. “Hey, my African brother!” he called out to a waiter. “You are African, right?”
“I am from Côte d’Ivoire,” the waiter beamed.
“Of course. Côte d’Ivoire! What a beautiful country. But,” turning to me, “that country needs serious rebranding. In fact, we need to rethink the entire African brand.” and he was away.
Thebe Ikalafeng talks about brands and branding with the zeal of a convert who has seen the light on the road to Damascus. When you are with him, the brand icons, such as MTN, Apple, BMW and so on, which we tend to take for granted, suddenly seem to wriggle to life and become huge presences. You do get the impression that brands are the most important aspect of a company, that each has a fascinating story behind it and that you can peel back layer upon layer of meaning.
“Think about it. Our entire ecosystem is driven by brands,” he says. “Our entire existence is determined by brands – from the most basic to the most luxurious. Whether you are looking for baby clothes or buying a car, you are choosing between brands. When you go out to eat, or to buy food, you are picking from brands. Thirsty? Which brand of beverage are you going to spend your money on? And residential neighbourhood, countries, companies to work for – everything.”
He is right, of course. Everything we do with our money is branded – from the essential to the luxury. Just a beer won’t do; it has to be Tusker or Castle or Kilimanjaro. A bar of soap? No, sir, it has to be this brand. What about mobile phones? Plenty of brands to choose from; ditto for service providers – MTN, Glo, Safaricom or the dozens of other brands battling it out there. Nobody sets out just to buy just a car; they set out to buy a Toyota or a Mercedes or a Jaguar.
Studies have shown that, contrary to long-held assumptions, the African consumer does not automatically go for the cheapest but is very brand conscious and that there is high brand loyalty.
“A brand is a subjective option,” Thebe says. “It is a promise made and delivered. It encapsulates all the qualities of the product or service. It says: ‘When you see this icon, you see the shorthand for a particular offering, positioning or quality – a promise to deliver at a particular price. A brand is a warranty.”
If the promise made is not delivered, the brand can very quickly lose public confidence. The industrial graveyard is full of dead brands that failed to deliver or broke the promises they had made or are expected to have.
“When I fork out my hard-earned cash to buy the latest Samsung smartphone, I am not buying just a piece of communication equipment. I am buying into the Samsung promise. I am buying into what the company stands for. I am voting for it. I am choosing it above others.
“That is the power and value of brands,” Thebe says. “That is why companies are so precious about their brands. That is why counterfeit brands are their worst nightmares – because they have no control over their delivering on their inherent or purported promise.”