The Villager as Pathway to the African Market


Raheem Akingbolu writes on the concept of The Villager, as demonstrated in a new marketing book published by the Managing Director of Insight Communications, Feyi Olubodun, and concludes that it serves as a guide for local and international brands, seeking to explore the African market

The debate on whether marketing theories and applications can be applied the same way in all continents has been on for decades. Should there be allusion to culture? Could there be universality in campaign? Should there be any room for domestication of creative ideas?
The above questions and others often come up anytime the issue of while some brands or campaign fail in Africa, are brought to the front burner. Also, in explaining why African creative agencies have always found it tough to clinch global awards, experts are always quick to state emphatically that lack of understanding of African narratives by the foreign judges, is responsible for the challenge.

Perhaps tired of the controversy around the subject matter, the Managing Director of Insight Communication, Mr. Feyi Olubodun, has come out with ‘The Villager – How Africans Consumes Brands’, a marketing book that reflects on what international brands get wrong about the African consumer.

Globalisation and westernisation

Through ‘The Villager’, Olubodun attempts to educate his readers on the need to be cautious while applying the word ‘Globalisation’. To him, globalisation, without recourse to culture, language and behavior of the people is an abuse of the word.
During an interactive session with Journalists in Lagos ahead of the public presentation of the book, Olubodun also tried to draw a line between the word sophistication and westernisation. According to him, lack of clear understanding of the application of some of the frequently used words, is the reason while many global brands fail in Nigeria.

“I argue very strongly that sophistication and westernisation don’t mean the same thing. You can be sophisticated and not be westernised,” he had stated. We need to hold our cultural identity very, very dearly and draw our authenticity from that while, at the same time, evolving ourselves so we can play significantly on the global stage,”

To him, the African consumer is a special breed. In The Villager, Olubodun points out cleverly that marketing to Africans using the construct designed for the Western world has been the bane of some marketing managers and international conglomerates’ below par performances and consistent failure for some international brands in the African space.

The Author paints a graphic picture of two conglomerates which deployed their home (country of origin) nuances in communicating with the Nigeria markets and in those instances the concerned products were seen to fall short of holding attention, trust and patronage of the local market and consumers.

Though, he admitted that marketing business is tough generally in the continent, no thanks to regulatory problems and changes in the industry, but he is quick to recognise that there is a fundamental disconnect between how brands working on the continent understand and relate to their consumers.

In capturing this, The Villager makes reference to an American airline that served a flight full of Nigerians jollof rice that had large pieces of okra in it.

“In Nigeria, to put okra in jollof rice is unheard of; it is the ultimate signal of poverty and lack in a family. Nigerians don’t eat okra with any form of rice. I was tempted to explain to the Americans that this gaffe was the equivalent of putting real dog meat in a hot dog. You have to understand that to the African mind there was no justifiable reason for this,” he says in the book.
This is just one of the many case studies in the book, which Olubodun said took him about a year to write.

He pointed out during the media briefing that what he tried to do with the book was to articulate a framework which argues that the African consumer is a villager and the village is a psychological construct and not a physical place.

“That framework has eight components that make up the mind of the consumer. I say that if you understand that framework and you’re able to put it to use, you will be able to connect better with the African consumer” he added.
Some of the frameworks he mentioned are; religion, herd mentality, the role of community, the need to signal our value in life. He stated that a lot of international brands tend to have the wrong assumptions about the African consumer, especially those in the middle-class.

“There is an assumption that because the middle-class in Africa is internationally exposed, they’ve travelled abroad and they’ve seen things, therefore they would be triggered by Western cues and that is incorrect.”
To support this, Olubodun quoted one of his friends, GG Alcock, who, according to him, said; ‘Africans are modernising not westernising’. Just because I have travelled to so many countries in the world doesn’t mean that I have become a white man.”

Place of data, research and population
Speaking on some of the things that prepared him to write the book, Olubodun spoke about how he started his career in a research company called RMS, where he was exposed to consumer behaviours, market trends and relevant population statistics. Through the background, he was exposed early in life to the multi-faceted African culture and nuances, which to him could help in proffering solution to the issue at hand.

He did not mince words in asserting that the Nigerian market with a population in excess of 180 million – is the go-to, frontier market. It has propensity “to dust the population of the United States of America by 2030”! He further described the alluring Nigerian population as being split into a “perfect pyramid” of approximately 5 percent Upper Class, 25 percent Middle Class and 70 percent Lower Class. This trend is noted to be peculiar to all African markets.

In the book, The Villager is not seen as the physical space any longer since the consumer has left there. “It is a psychological construct that defines the African consumer. It is his world view, the essential filter through which he engages products and consumer brands.”

Armed with these data and more, his presentations on ‘marketing to Nigerians, and Africans’ in general at different international fora have earned him the recognition as a thought leader while the subject gains traction with businesses and marketers willing to do business in Africa. Reason is that, this appalling rate of failure needs be curtailed. Hence, the urge for new knowledge and a shift in the paradigm deployed in marketing to Africans, prevailed on Feyi to put his impressive presentations and further thoughts on the issue into a book to serve as a guide into the African market.

The future
Ask Olubodun what he feels the future will look like and he will be quick in saying ‘content’. For him the future of the industry is in content. At a point during the interview, he started sounding philosophical, with reference quotes from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to discuss the place of storytelling in African culture.

“The future of digital and advertising in Africa is content because Africa is a storytelling continent. But you can’t think of the future of anything digital without taking the youth, a big part of the continent’s population, into consideration,”

Even at this, he pointed out that the young ones within the continent population are generally facing this tension of globalisation, which he said making the world a smaller place to them. He also pointed out that there is the tension of identity.

He states in the book that young people are discovering that if they can do more or less the same things as their counterparts in France on social media, it is their cultural identity that gives them a sense of uniqueness and authenticity.

“Unfortunately in the past two or three decades, as Africans, we haven’t properly framed our culture for what it is. We’ve spent a lot of time looking to the West for our own definition. We’ve looked down on our own culture and felt that our own culture is inferior because we don’t have the same kind of rules and technology that the West has,”

Cultural diversities
In The Villager, Olubodun draws the line and breakdown some salient realities that cannot be overlooked in Africa through various chapters of the book. Among them are; cultural, community affirmation, community sanctions, community rituals, herd mentality, the value of the enemy, Pillars of religion and signaling your journey; to x-ray and explain the make-up of the African consumer and what propels and motivates him. “Anytime, I talked about these with different audiences, it’s almost like the scales fell from their eyes”, he said.

For instance, in “Value of the enemy” as a sub-theme, the Author faults the age-old “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” as it concerns marketing to Africans. “It does not apply to us, it’s a Western construct. It applies to societies that are individualistic in nature while the African society is a collective society, a “we” culture and not an “I” type of culture”,

Against this backdrop, the Author believes that what actually helps Africans when it comes to success is the “need to have an enemy”. “The enemy you are trying to prove wrong is more important to you than the friend that believes in you”. The Author illustrates this with his experience with a Congolese barber he met in South Africa, who while sharing his life story, re-affirmed that when one wants to achieve something great in life, there are always enemies that are determined to stop him. The caveat here is that the enemy has to be defeated. This encounter which aptly captures the real African is in chapter 7 –The Value of an Enemy- in the book.

Also in “Signaling your Journey through life” the book posited that as Africans, as you progress through different levels of economic advancement in life, you have to “show you have arrived”. “We are not Warren Buffet that has been driving same car for 10 years, you cannot be a millionaire and do that in Africa, “the devil is a liar”, or you have been promoted at work and still wearing the same clothes, it doesn’t happen in this clime. Mark Zuckerberg uses the same type of clothes every day that is Oyinbo lifestyle, it is un-African. These were some of the Author’s quick illustrations that show a huge difference between Africans and other races.

To drive the Villager concept, the Author declared: “Nobody is a self-made man in Africa. If you lose your father an uncle will train you. The expectation is that when you are doing well, you contribute to bringing others up. The society here is both contributory and participatory”. At another instance, the Author also noted, “We are a shame based society and not guilt based”.

These are some of the thoughts put together in the book to provide a lens through which you could see why things are the way they are especially in the African nay Nigerian marketing environment. These assertions add to how not to market to Africans.

Succinctly, the book can be said to have provided the ‘lens’ that the African is a more of an aspirational consumer, which predisposes his desires towards “social mobility and generational mobility”. Hence, to guide the marketer, the Author posited three characteristic African impacts on consumption. These are futuristic consumption; symbolic consumption; and realistic consumption.

As part of what he wants to achieve with the book, he said he would be delighted when the book start to spur the CEOs, CFOs, Heads of Marketing and senior Brand people to discourse, “why the way they are marketing to us is wrong and why the current framework is actually faulty”.