Marketeers need to work hard to understand their audiences in this turbulent time says Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn

Sawubona (sow:’bo:nah) is a common greeting from the Zulu tribe in my native South Africa. It literally means “I see you; you are important to me and I value you.”

In a tribal village context, the meaning further expands to: “All my attention is with you. I see you and I allow myself to discover your needs, to see your fears, to identify your mistakes and accept them. I accept you for what you are and you are part of me.”

A person then typically responds with shiboka: “I am relieved to know that I exist for you.”

What this greeting taught me was that a Zulu truly wants to get to know you, and will maintain eye contact and listen intently to discover who you are. This desire to authentically get to know and understand another person is quite remarkable in today’s fast paced and insincere world. Yet we all have a need to be seen and made to feel this way, especially in these crazy times.

The sawubona tradition has a very special place in my heart and over the years, without realising it, I have adopted a similar mindset when approaching the process of developing a brand story.

Creating a market position for a brand it is all about asking many meaningful questions and then really listening to the answers. As marketeers, we should interrogate with vigour to uncover the things that make a brand special or different but also accept those things that are perhaps less positive. It all plays a role in developing an authentic brand character.

Of course, telling compelling brand stories comes fairly easy when the people behind the brand have good intentions – and are inherently good people who want to deliver a good product or service and ultimately be successful.

The greatest gift for me is to discover a culture of community and caring for each other already imbedded in an organisation. By this I’m not suggesting a laidback group of people holding hands and signing Kumbaya every morning but that there is an environment where everyone works towards the common good of the organisation, respecting each other’s roles and responsibilities. Where this happens, and where business goals are integrated and aligned across all departments, the external perception and communication messages are usually consistent and clear.

As a client or customer, you should always receive the same brand “feel” at every interaction. This is how big brands are built but it can be a rare and elusive experience. Generally this is because the various disciplines of an organisation are delivered by a merry mix of individuals who often approach and do things differently, the way they each see fit.

Understanding and truly believing in the bigger purpose and goal of the organisation – and what your individual role is within that organisation in order to achieve that goal – is what should matter.

The importance and power of internal communication is often underestimated, especially where there are multiple management layers in an organisation. The company’s business vision and objectives are often undermined or watered down as it cascades through the ranks.

To avoid this, whenever I am involved in repositioning a brand message or image for a client, I strongly encourage “townhall” sessions, before, during and after with all the staff. Not just to inform them of the new direction or approach, but to help them to feel they are part of the organisation’s journey.

In my opinion, if you do not get every single person in the organisation on board, much of the fancy new branding or marketing campaign will become superficial and cosmetic. As a business leader or owner, your most powerful brand ambassadors are right there in your office – it’s your job to inspire them and make them part of the solution.

The sawubona principle also comes into play when presenting your product and services to your desired audience. In order to be successful, you have to develop an in-depth knowledge of your client or customer. Dig deep and ask meaningful questions that will give you real insights and allow you to engage with your audience in a more authentic manner.

Constant communication, both internally and externally, and making small adjustments along the way, is how you keep your brand relevant. And that’s especially true in this world of lockdowns and remote working/living, where we are seeing changing consumer behaviour.

Now, more than ever, brands need to ask those questions and make those adjustments very quickly in order to remain at the sharp end of the spear.

Find out what it is your customers want from you during these times and what you can do to improve the experience.

While the current shifts in behaviour have been forced upon us, some of them may be more permanent than we’d like to think… but I truly believe as marketeers we are in a wonderful place. Navigating our way to sell our products and services in these unchartered waters will remain a challenge, but boy is that not exciting or what?

There are a few Zulu sayings I could use to sign off but maybe this one is the most appropriate: Ngikufisela inhlanhla – I wish you luck.



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