Why the African consumer market opportunity will force marketing to reinvent itself

By | April 21, 2014

Mass markets were a shorthand forced on marketers who had too little time or information or leverage to treat different people differently. They are the result of the mass merchant, the mass media and mass production. But humans aren’t a homogeneous mass, we are individuals, as individual as we dare to be. ~ Seth Godin

To continue my series on the challenge and the opportunity waiting for the enterprising in the emerging economies of the African continent, I’m going to explore another element of the unease I’ve picked up in current day coverage by mainstream business media and management consultancies. Based on my experience consulting with startups and companies targeting the African consumer market, I believe that marketing, as a discipline and as an industry, will be forced to reinvent itself, from the ground up, starting with the fundamental assumptions on which the entire framework rests.


The sad fact that Africa has always been misperceived as one homogenous mass (see Africa is not a country) is another underlying reason why her emerging markets are being treated in the same manner as the those of India and China. Unlike the two Asian countries, the African continent consists of 54 diverse and disparate nations, comprising very different cultures, societies, languages and histories. Even though India has as much diversity and disparity, it is still one nation with a single set of laws and regulations for trade and commerce. This is not true of Africa.

This diversity has been noted as a challenge for marketing and advertising but I think its going to become a bigger issue than simply regional localization and more market research. Its not just a matter of different cultures and languages, but also social and economic diversity leading a wholly different mindset and worldview, and thus, buyer behaviour. As the linked FT article quotes:

It is early days, but foreign executives from consumer companies privately acknowledge that they will have to adapt, and quickly. “It’s only just now that people are beginning to see Africans as consumers,” says a European corporate executive.

“The time is coming when we and everybody else are going to have to tailor and adapt brands – advertising and marketing, both – to the different Africa markets,” the executive says.

There’s still an implicit assumption however, that though the concept of Africans as consumers is new, once they’re seen as such, developing a consumer market strategy can follow the same old approach as for any other consumer market. The real challenge, imho, for marketers and brand managers of all stripes and sizes, will be their struggle to grasp the complexity of the opportunity within the frame of reference of traditional marketing and sales.


Without questioning the underlying premise behind their methods, what CK Prahalad had referred to once as the ‘tyranny of dominant logic’, there is the danger of attempting to apply frameworks and tools from one operating environment in order to make sense of a wholly different one.

For example, for a “European corporate executive”, a small solar charger retailing at 30 euros could be said to be an off the shelf purchase in a department store. He wouldn’t be surprised to find it in a blister pack, hanging from a hook. This would not be considered a major household consumer durable purchase like a dishwasher or air conditioner, requiring face time with customer service or decision making with his spouse. One can walk in, choose one’s preferred charger and take it to the payment aisle.

The very same product at the same price point is in fact a major household purchase for a subsistence farmer living off the electric grid, for whom this may be his first installation of a modern energy supply. Three thousand shillings could be half his monthly cash flow, thus requiring the joint efforts of the entire household. That small solar charger can provide lighting, mobile phone charging and even power a radio for news and entertainment.

That singular decision to categorize a product as a Consumer Durable or as a Fast Moving Consumer Good (FMCG) can make or break a brand’s entire distribution, marketing and sales strategy. Worse, it may not even be a considered decision but instead the result of an entire series of implicit assumptions left unquestioned. The product ends up being sold without any manual or brochures, with little or no customer service or training in its use, while being distributed in supermarkets. The end user for whom it was meant to serve, the hardworking chap living in some remote rural African farm without electricity, rarely ends up benefiting from it.

Formulaic assumptions

Yet it is these sort of fundamental assumptions in marketing that are not being questioned, even as brands and market research seeks to identify and segment the African consumer opportunity. In fact, market segmentation itself will be a whole different ballgame when it comes to the prevalence and impact of the cash based informal economy and its own particular characteristics. These are not your grandmother’s consumers and they are going to be some of the most demanding customers you have ever served. Standard concepts just won’t fly and only lead to millions of euros lost and companies folding up shop.

Traditionally, research has been lacking in Africa, with much being ad hoc or proprietary studies done by fast moving consumer goods companies, which lack the objectivity to make them entirely reliable. While Namibia, Ghana and Kenya have surveys analogous to those of the South African Audience Research Foundation (Saarf), research is still too scarce and fragmented, say sources. […]

As a developing market with an ever-younger population, Africa is seen as the last frontier for global brands. Media in Africa is exploding, with channels like mobile presenting new and unexpected opportunities for marketers. In a fragmented and inconsistent media research landscape, the key to the future is developing homogenised data that is comparable across markets. ~ Africa, the final media frontier

Will homogenised data be the key to the future when exactly the reverse is beginning to happen in more developed markets due to the impact of social media and smartphones? Fragmentation as a fact of life for mass marketing is a global challenge for marketers everywhere, not just in Africa. The very same legacy infrastructure that Africa leapfrogged on its way to embracing the mobile platform is what still provides the somewhat shaky foundations for mass communication and marketing in the established markets of the developed world. And here, I include South Africa, as its only now that it has begun to consider itself part of this continent and not a breakaway faction of the first world.

There is no “mass” market and now its too late to create one

For the rest of Africa, the combination of the “youth bulge”, the lack of legacy infrastructure in consumer insights, and the mobile phone are on their way to creating a perfect storm for the future of marketing right now, and its going manifest itself in this very same emerging consumer market opportunity. To go back to Seth Godin’s words I quoted at the start of this article, mass markets were the result of mass media, mass production and the mass merchant. All of these are part of the legacy that Africa has already leapfrogged or may never establish.

Already, Facebook is seen as business promotion platform in Ethiopia, something I’d heard an entrepreneurial young Kenyan woman in Mombasa also tell me back in late 2011. A snippet,

A similar technique has attracted a sizable number of customers to Yonas Gulelat, 24, who makes and designs traditional dresses to sell at his shop in the Shiro Meda area in Gulele District, on Algeria Street. Facebook, he says, has provided him with a more viable and cheaper alternative to advertising, than electronic or print media.

“Facebook promotes business more swiftly and has helped me to sell anywhere between 15 and 25 traditional dresses every week,” said Yonas.

The only thing that social media and communication technology have done is scale the reach and scope of the way the existing local and fragmented informal markets were already communicating; through word of mouth, trusted references and proof of performance through the experiences of others. Where the informal meets the formal will be the operating environment of the African consumer markets, and the arena where market entry will either fail or succeed.

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