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Connecting with Soweto - One Street Back

Connecting with Soweto - One Street Back

Antony Stearns

National Head of Strategy Geometry


To be effective in delivering breakthrough advertising that cuts through the fragmented communication clutter that we find today, requires ongoing human investment from both client and agency teams to get out from behind their desks and understand the real “on the ground” behavior and sentiment that exists in consumer groups.

To bring the sentiment of “find the insight” to life, I recently participated in a client market immersion to not only re-orientate myself with the sentiment of black middle-class consumers “on the ground” but to also get a true sense of the energy that was flowing through the streets of Soweto.

From the onset, I was absolutely blown away by the amazing levels of optimism and individualism that I found residing amongst millennials in this market that was absolutely palpable. From clothing to cuisine, to something as simple as a bicycle, this market thirsts to express their individuality.

One thing is for sure, there is a hunger to succeed and a strong push to shine – there is an unwavering energy stemming through the streets of Soweto from everybody I met, to liberate themselves and to make their personal mark, not only in their own lives, but in their community and in the world, in a way that they want – on their terms.

According to the Nielsen’s Annual Shopper Trends Study undertaken in 2017, R315,7 Billion was spent in total in the South African retail sector, of which R70,5 Billion was spent within the Urban Independent (mostly small business or Spaza) channels. The Nielsens report highlights that sales growth within the Urban Independent channels between March 2016-2017, rose by 13.4 percent year on year, so it was a real eye opener to visit the street traders and hawkers one street back to get a true perspective of how these traders operate.

It’s amazing what happens when you unblinker yourself and take the time to really look and understand the real-life dynamics in play on the streets of Soweto. What was overly apparent

was the activity of small businesses operating absolutely everywhere. Hidden deep within the confines of every community, are thriving entrepreneurs focused on success.

From a brand and marketing perspective, what is clear is that the Spaza owner has become the brand gatekeeper, and that local communities are mobilized, have disposable income, and are buying – A LOT.

It must be said that the role of the Spaza shop owner is almost always neglected when the client brief hits the agency. Yet when you spend time on the streets you realize how important these informal traders are in contributing towards product volumes and brand exposure.

Spaza owners crave legitimacy and really want brands to assist them in supporting a professional image in their trading communities. One glaring observation is the lack

of brand and marketing support that was observed amongst these traders. Understanding the informal traders’ role and importance within the purchasing decision journeys of consumers in the Black Middle Market presents a real opportunity for brands to be more impactful within the lives and households that they wish to attract.

Whilst there is a strong appetite for local “home grown” brands motivating millennial buying behavior, a more materialistic view was expressed amongst the 30’somethings. With more disposable income and an appetite to “stand out from the crowd”, big mainstream international brands were the order of the day. In the eyes of this slightly older market, these big-name brands represent status, and there is a real hunger to be associated with brand labels that reflect their success, be recognized, and “stand out from the crowd”.

A real revelation was a visit to Jabulani Mall, based in the heart of Soweto. Surrounded by low cost housing and a rural landscape, Jabulani Mall presented itself as a shining oasis of sheer brand aspiration. Almost every major brand clothing label could be found and as we made our way to the exit we were interrupted by a BMW car display showcasing their entire product range. Every preconceived notion in terms of a trading environment that was positioned to cater for the lower end of the market, was completely shattered.

As a parting thought around my immersion - rise up, unblinker yourself and find the real “one street back” insight that will provide your agency and brand with the creative magic to break through. As cliché as it may sound in terms of brands wanting to have a meaningful impact into the Black Mass Middle Market, the richer the insight, the better the brief that guides the creative process and that are an essential component to driving the conceptualization of rich meaningful big ideas that resonate and are relevant.

It is hard to find a real insight driven strategy that goes beyond the stagnated segmentation model. Finding true consumer moments and rich connection points along the consumer path to purchase provides brands and their agencies with the opportunity to make a meaningful impact in the lives of their consumers in a way that is authentic and genuine which exhibits a true understanding of their world, their pressures, their reality.