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Bono, Public Diplomacy and ‘Brand Africa’

May 25, 2006


From the May 12, 2006 Dallas Business Journal:

In Dallas for a talk presented by the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth, rock star Bono advocated more U.S. aid to Africa as a means of diplomacy and preventing terrorism. "Public diplomacy at its core is really about branding," the U2 singer said. "But the American brand isn't at its shiniest. The neon is crackling." ... At the Genesis Women's Shelter's annual Mother's Day Luncheon, former President George H.W. Bush was knocked out by a spirited invocation delivered by the Rev. Dr. Sheron Patterson of Highland Hills Methodist Church. "I might become a Methodist, if you keep going like that," Bush joked with Patterson from the podium. Then he added: "I'm one of the 'chosen frozen' -- an Episcopalian."

Interesting that Bono is using this language, because I don't think he quite realizes the enormous branding power that he wields over Africa – and it's far from positive.

Africa suffers from what I call "continent brand effect": because there is so little public awareness and knowledge of the individual countries, every country on the continent apart from South Africa ends up sharing the same reputation. Even a relatively prosperous and well-governed nation like Botswana ends up sharing perceptions of violence with Rwanda, of corruption with Nigeria, of poverty with Ethiopia and of famine from Sudan.

And Brand Africa, with its simple message of ongoing catastrophe, is promoted with skill, dedication, creativity and vast financial and media resources by aid agencies, international organisations, donor governments and, most prominently, by aid celebrities like Bob Geldof and Bono. Every time such a celebrity appears before tens of millions of TV viewers around the world to make another impassioned plea on behalf of the continent (usually represented by a black logo in the shape of Africa), he is building the brand image of Africa, not as 53 countries in various stages of development and struggle for independent existence and identity, but as a uniform, hopeless basket-case.

This image is absolutely ideal for generating charity, of course, but with each additional promotion, it becomes harder for places like Botswana, their companies and entrepreneurs, to break free of these negative associations and start to build a competitive identity of their own, or to inspire anything more useful than pity.

This kind of negative branding is the hardest of all to criticize, because it is so plainly done with the noblest intentions, and because it does as much good in the short term as it does harm in the long term.

Take Nigeria, for example. Lagos ranks at or near the bottom of most of the categories in the City Brands Index, but this is hardly surprising, since it is the least well known and least visited of the 30 cities in the Index, and has no world-famous landmarks, personalities, events or achievements. This creates a kind of perceptual vacuum, into which a wide range of generalized African imagery tends to flow. By far the leading association with Lagos is "war," mentioned by 11 percent of our respondents, an unusually high percentage by any standards; the same percentage, in fact, that associate the United Nations with Geneva. The Biafran War ended in 1970.

I'm giving a speech at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town next week on this subject, titled "Why it is time to abolish 'Africa'" - and by "Africa" of course I mean "Brand Africa," that big, bad, hopeless continent brand that ruins the chances of so many well-run African businesses and African countries. Africa urgently needs to be perceived as 53 individual countries, each one better known for its real, individual characteristics, competences, talents and assets. I don't think it's going too far to say that until this issue is widely recognized, and until the governments of each African nation start to take their brand management and public diplomacy responsibility seriously, human and economic development in Africa will remain elusive.

It would be a wonderful thing if Bono could turn his considerable branding firepower onto that task. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how the WEF crowd responds!


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Though I agree with your

Though I agree with your statement about the public image of Africa, I do believe that the world is beginning to perceive African countries as more hopeful than you have described. You say that people generally tend to believe that only South Africa holds significant power on the African continent. This is because South Africa is in a unique position in terms of its importance to the continent of Africa along with Mbeki's drive to become a major player on the international stage. And Mbeki is certainly trying to reframe global perceptions about Africa.
Africa's future will be determined in the next few years not just by the actions of Bono, Geldof, the African Union and NEPAD, but by the message that these leaders help to convey to the world at large. And I do agree that thus far, the world sees very little, hears very little and understands far less about Africa's magnificent riches. But with current communication technology, African countries should seize the opportunity to transmit any positive branding message they can, with each defining itself as a separate and unique culture, each with its own set of resources along with its challenges, not relying on Bono et al to do it for them.
Perhaps the next generation of leaders will be inspired, so that the world will finally recognize that Africa is not just this land mass in desperate need of troops, medicines and cash in our system of guerrilla aid; Africa is made up of all those nations to which you refer, each of which is essential and relevant to the world, and each of which deserves to be included in the global conversation.

You've creatively made us

You've creatively made us look at the image question from a different angle. I'm not sure, however, that "Africa" is necessarily such a negative brand. Certainly not in the long term. Maybe with many Europeans it is, but check with African-Americans, among others. Remember that it wasn't so long ago in the USA (and even the UK) that "Europe" connoted hatred, violence, extremism, mass war, and secular fanaticism: the land of crazy white people.

Dear Simon, I have read your

Dear Simon, I have read your book "Brand new justice" and as a marketing person who is now looking into development issues in Africa, I found it very inspiring.

I totally agree with your branding approach to solve poverty problems in the world, both when you refer to companies and organisations in poor countries and to nations as such. And I totally agree with you, when you say that initiatives such as the ones carried out by Bono have a negative impact on the perception of the African continent, though they have noble goals.

I think though, from a marketing point of view, that being the brand awareness of each African country very low, it would be more efficient to focus on brand Africa than on 53 different brands. This needs coordination at regional level, but it would probably be more cost-effective.

My experience tells me that Africans from different African countries are more related to the African continent than say, Italians, Germans and English to the European continent. They do feel a common spirit. There is an African identity. And promoting it through products, services, tourism etc. would be a better first step towards changing the perception of Africa from negative to positive.

In a second phase, let's say after 5 or 10 years, when consumers in the Western world needs new concepts, new countries of origin, new stories... then probably it would make more sense to shift to the single African countries or even to the different regions (West Africa, Southern Africa etc.).

Africa has a great potential, and each country faces similar challanges. And even in order to be more influencial also politically in internatinal forums, it makes sense to create, at least at the beginnng, a common strategy... a political, economical... and branding strategy.

I agree. And even when the

I agree. And even when the likes of Clooney delve into individual countries like Sudan the identity of the country gets flatened out and given the same treatment (and incidently I feel that arrogant western finger wagging will not inspire change - and can be damaging).

The solution to the Africa branding problem lies within the individual countries themselves - to develop thier own public diplomacy strategies.

Have you looked at Robert Guests book, "The Shackled Continent" - I am finding it good preparation for my upcoming visit to Sudan.

Incidently - Over the past few years (particularly when living in Asia) I have begun to view myself as "European" and feel more and more connected with my continental mainland cousins. Is this a bad thing?


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