This blog reflects on life at work at comments on the latest news that shapes my 9-5 working day in a Corporate Communications consultancy.

About Me

I am a born and bred South African who has always loved to read and write. As a child my mother used to read to me and my siblings, from classics like the “Lord of the Rings” but later also from her own stories. She would write children’s stories and then use us as her test audience, but I loved to hear what she had written long after my siblings had tired of it. So I grew up in an environment of reading and writing, which inspired my love of these things. I hope to write a great book some day, and have learnt first hand the determination and will that it takes. My love of English inspired me to continue my study of it at university. I majored in Law and English in a BA degree at UCT where I found that I took to English much more than law. I enjoyed learning about South Africa’s history and the development of our liberal Constitution, which increasingly made me committed to the hope this country has for the future. Ideally, I’d like to find myself in a job where I am able to write; that allows a good mix of time spent with people and being able to work on my own.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Bringing the Obama social networking tactics to SA politics

Today's Management and Leadership page in Business Day has a profile of Abey Mokgwatsane, which caught my eye because he spoke to the WOW 2007 group about building a personal brand. Abey describes how his marketing agency VWV made a pitch to a South African political party to include social networking strategies in the run up to this year's election, modelled on Obama's campaign.

He discusses Obama's brand and how it was built through the use of social media tactics - recognising Obama's stress on change but also how his slogan "Yes we can" empowered and gave hope to the consumer.

What interests me is whether a social media campaign will work for a South African political party. Yes, social media is taking off - but how much is it really taking off in South Africa? We were discussing it yesterday over lunch, and, for our purposes as a comunciations company, there's so far been little of import in that space that would affect any of our clients - people aren't going to use social sites such as Facebook to chat about a major mining company. The most popular blogs are those like "Mushy Peas on toast", and the Rugby blog KEO is in first place in popularity: we haven't yet seen corporate activists take the blogging sphere and build up a popular following.

I'll be watching the election with interest to see how the social media tactics play out. Abey thinks an Obama like campaign will work just as well here, and focuses his model on cell phones, with their major penetration in SA and African markets. As CEO of VWV at only 30 years old, Abey Mokgwatsane is also definitely one to watch.

Business Day
Surfing into the edges of brand consciousness
30 Jan 09

Abey Mokgwatsane, CEO of pace-setting marketing agency VWV, sees powerful lessons for SA in the Obama communications strategy, writes Doug Gordon

ABEY Mokgwatsane may be the only man in Johannesburg running a R100m annual business whose card doesn’t list his title. It’s a statement, of course — tuned specifically to the vast, young African consumer market who communicate as fast and laterally as today’s global internet community can reach. It’s the reach that voted a little-known junior senator into the White House this month and the kind of thinking that can make the “Obama effect” a major factor for change in our own upcoming elections. Mokgwatsane is the CEO of pacesetting marketing agency VWV, whose pitch to one of the campaigning political parties includes much of the cutting-edge communications strategy that caused tens of millions of voters to get behind Barack Obama in last November’s US elections. “It would work just as effectively here,” Mokgwatsane says. The blueprint for such a campaign, developed by the VWV planners during the recent summer holidays, is based on the rapid cellphone penetration of the South African market — already to more than 80% of the population. Obama’s blitz used SMS, MMS and Twitter to get the word out, which then multiplied via social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace to millions who felt alienated from their political establishment. He campaigned for change and he kept it one-on-one, sending out daily messages while his rivals spent fortunes on saturating the TV channels with lavish TV messages. “The Obama campaign aligned the people behind a cause instead of a candidate,” he says. “It became a mission. His young organisers on campuses and in the streets networked through every community. They overlapped, they multiplied. They had an army of people constantly growing behind the single purpose of bringing change to the government.” Obama’s e-punchline made voting personal: “Change starts with you.” Smart campaigning has proved equally effective for VWV in terms of selling products other than political candidates. He and business partners Jameson Hlongwane and Wanda Shuenyane have made the transition to new media for a client list that includes Nokia, SABMiller, Coca-Cola, Nando’s, Neotel and BMW. This month the agency completes a mammoth, four-year rebranding operation on the national freight carrier Transnet. And Mokgwatsane regards the new Mini account as equally significant. “We are increasingly targeting areas of our portfolio in which we can work with the dynamic young market,” he explains. “Clients like these allow us to tap into the confluence of social networking and flow at full pace. It’s what we did with Virgin Mobile two years ago. The brief is always to be cool and do stuff that’s never been done before. To be edgy. It’s fantastic.” Now aged 30, Mokgwatsane has been in step with the multimedia evolution since he began his marketing career. What he’s brought to the superhighway is a street instinct for What’s Coming Next in a well-informed, emergent consumer market that’s setting trends for the whole of the subcontinent.

Working as a marketing trainee for SAB in 2002, he revolutionised the commercial pop culture with SABC1’s influential Castle Loud show. Household names jammed together live every Friday night to set the tone for the new urban chic, what they wore, how they partied and what they drank. Appointed a brand manager, he used a similar approach to separate America’s Miller Genuine Draft from the dated “green glass and silver foil” image of European beers. “The TV ad was like a music video,” he says. “There were no pack shots and bowing the knee to tradition. It was a fresh young brand designed for fun times: a party in LA, a party in London, a party in Tokyo — and a party happening in Jo’burg. It hooked a new brand to the global party vibe.” Backed by a launch event on a Hollywood scale, 1 500 A-listers commuted to parties around SA aboard Lear jets — hooked up to the online audience via images downloaded onto the brand’s website. Miller sales hit 100000 hectalitres faster than any other SAB label at the time — and Mokgwatsane quit to join VWV. “Radical new ideas cause waves,” he shrugs. “I needed the freedom to follow the momentum I’d discovered in below-the-line marketing. I have never accepted that relentless, big-budget TV advertising can establish a product and a new mindset. Not with today’s media-savvy generation. For me, a brand concept is made at 4am, at a club, with your friends, listening to great music — that’s when you connect with a brand. You tune into what the people want next.” Today, with more than 40% of our population younger than himself, Mokgwatsane feels even more closely tuned to the mindset of a consumer generation in its second decade of democracy. As the economy bites into marketing budgets, he’s intent on finding new, cost-effective ways for his clients to reach the public.

One example: Mokgwatsane believes that traditional stokvels are an untapped source of investment finance, a resource estimated to be worth close to R1,5bn, with memberships mostly female. “It stems from the apartheid era when many men went off to work and they stayed at home to raise the families,” he says. “I’d guess that maybe 70% of South African households nowadays are led by women. We are only beginning to figure out how to reach them. I’m talking about the grandmothers who feed their kids, clothe them and get them into school, all on their monthly pensions of a few hundred rand.” The trade and industry department last year estimated there are at least 800000 active stokvels with at least 10-million members, providing cash reserves to supplement the meagre incomes of low-income households. “This is a massive community dedicated to a single purpose,” he continues. “They are constantly looking out for a new savings account offering a better rate of interest. Yet many banks, which are desperate for cash, ignore them. The stokvel model is a major new factor. In an election year, it brings into play every one of those millions of women as potential investors taking charge of their savings and the future of their families. That’s who we need to reach in an election year.” Cellphones provide the cheapest and most effective route of doing that. Text greetings flew at a rate of 1000 a second between families and friends as New Year arrived this month, on one leading network alone; at least 50-million messages pinged out on Christmas day. Digital hook-ups are handheld and thriving here in the same way that Obama amassed his own grassroots collective. Empathy is what gets millions of people on message. “Keep it simple,” says Abey. “Express it in a single sentence that everyone can relate to and talk about.” Brands must connect with the right market energy to build fast, and when it works it’s dynamite. President Obama is already a brand icon at a level that marketers can only dream about. Virtually unknown to the American public a year ago, his credibility and user-friendly image now puts even Tiger Woods in the shade. He’s the first president to use his smartphone inside the Oval Office — a product endorsement that would be worth at least $50m a year if he wasn’t doing it for free, say marketing experts.

“The BlackBerry anecdotes are a huge part of Obama’s brand reputation,” he notes. “It positions him as one of us: he’s got friends and family and people to communicate with, just like all of us. And it positions him as a next-generation politician.” He followed the Obama campaign with increasing fascination as the buzz mounted on the net and began generating global headlines. He’s feeling the same excitement about our own upcoming elections. “The Obama campaign model would be the quickest way to bring an intensive, fully organised operation into play here,” he says. “When he won the election on November 5, the world changed. There is a new era of truth that’s sweeping the globe, the unvarnished realities of business and politics exposed by the economic recession. “Obama understood from the beginning that change was the key issue — change that was coming and would radically affect us all. He grasped that instinctively and drove that message throughout 2008 while his rivals only latched onto it in the closing weeks before the election.” That’s the pitch that Mokgwatsane used last month to bring state-of-the-art communications to our own election. “South Africans want respect and they want to be kept in the loop about the issues that affect them personally,” he says. “They couldn’t care less about old-style electioneering, gossip and moral baggage. The greatest credibility a candidate can offer nowadays is simply to tell the truth and trust the voters to make their own decisions.”

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