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Innovating and renovating brand pipelines to inspire growth

Innovating and renovating brand pipelines to inspire growth

Lyn Wilson

Integrated Senior Planner

J Walter Thompson


The South African economy has been faltering for a number of years, failing to expand more than 2 percent a year since 2014. In 2018 the South African economy grew by a mere 1.4 percent in the fourth quarter, contributing to an overall growth rate of 0.8 percent for the entire year, according to Stats SA. 

Euromonitor’s Country Reports for South Africa, June 2018 shows that sales in multiple brand segments have remained flat. Some brands are growing behind their category’s current trajectory; others are driving stagnation in their category; and others still are even experiencing a retraction in their category. Many brands can expect greater competition from disruptive global and local newcomers, changing customer preferences for products and services, and a low to slow growth environment for some time to come.


Changes in preferences are being driven across the board (for the “haves,” the “have-nots,”  and even the “have yachts”) by a commensurately changing consumer consciousness manifesting as fundamentally altered attitudes as to how, on what, and how much we spend. This has been caused not merely by economic and political factors but also ascendant health, wellbeing, social, and environmental concerns.

Little surprise then that many of the big research houses, such as Euromonitor, are predicting a plateauing in several categories for the foreseeable future.

In this taxing trading environment, how can we support our South African clients with their most pressing strategic need: growth?

Understanding a consumer’s perception of a brand is the usual place to start. This data is crucial, yet it doesn’t always provide the critical clues necessary for deciphering the entire picture.

Often pivotal leads can be found in the soft signals in society, the tremors of a shifting category and competitive environment, and, specifically, the fault lines of cultural change. A good semiotic analysis picks up on and tracks these emerging tremors, and, if leveraged consciously, can provide a coherent path through the chaos of such a shifting landscape. In the right hands, it can inspire and energize marketing communications and brand teams about future opportunities, including planning a forthcoming brand, packaging design, communications campaigns, and even innovative products or services. As a result, brands can stay ahead of the curve relative to the category and the competition.

Renovating the brand pipeline and communicating the brand’s innovation via emergent but appropriate cultural codes, can make the difference between star status and growth or being a forgotten non-entity of a brand.


Recently we were asked to look at a growth strategy for a prestigious, heritage brand. We began by exploring residual, dominant, and emerging cultural codes. The semiotic analysis was then correlated to the brand’s current value proposition. We found that what used to be an emotional “feel good” purchase, has now become a rational, studied purchase. Further, it became clear that fundamental cultural shifts are at play in South Africa, indicating a strong movement away from a once prestigious luxury buy to what will become a conscious, socio-political buy in the future.

The results showed an existential threat to the category as we knew it, clearly calling out an inflection point for the brand in question. We concluded that it was doubtful the brand would be in a better trading position in the next five years. More importantly, however, our analysis signaled a clear opportunity, a largely uncontested “blue ocean” space, where the brand could take the lead on emergent cultural codes, regain market share, and actively drive growth.

In another exercise, we ascertained that a product that was once generally accepted as a well-deserved reward for hard work and providing for the family had since progressed to a reward for personal progress. And it would in the near future become a rare indulgence, a hidden part of a modern lifestyle (from what was once a normative part of life) and indeed a social taboo.

The copious, conspicuous consumption patterns of the past are in the middle of making a 180-degree turn to the center of meaningful consumption and frugality. In this context, the consumer’s relationship with certain brands—not only the ones we were working on—will weaken and may even break down entirely.

South Africa is not alone in experiencing shifting cultural behaviours and codes. Strong undertones of a pushback on globalization and homogenization are affecting consumer mindsets and wallets around the world.

Whilst the data we collected and analyzed to inform the client’s strategy is of course proprietary, the approach is evergreen! And if you are not considering emergent cultural codes in your category, maybe you should be.