The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
Three Soweto residents named Vuyo Mpanthsa, Justice Mukheli and his twin brother Innocent, decided to do something about the unfair image Soweto has accrued with a project they call, “I See a Different You”.
This isn’t, strictly speaking, an advertising campaign, but it has so much to teach marketers that it is worth looking at.
City and nation branding
Welcome to Soweto, 10 December 2011. Source: iseeadifferentyou.tumblr.com.
Cities and nations spend millions of rands trying to change the way people see them. I come from the Simon Anholt school of marketing. The founder of the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index, Anholt rightly believes that a lot of nation ‘branding’ can be a waste of money; it’s what countries do that most influences how they are perceived. As Anholt often says — nations get the image they deserve.
But we also know that people are reductive and use shortcuts to form the perceptions they have of a place. Let’s take (for instance) Soweto. How many people around the world are still stuck with the perception of Soweto that was perpetuated around the world in the ‘76 riots? Or think of Soweto as a poverty-riddled shanty town?
Here are some quotes about Soweto I’ve collected recently from global news brand to see how they describe the sprawling area that is some 30 kilometres from Johannesburg, that is as big as Jozi and is home to close on 1,5 million people.
“… Soweto, the poverty-stricken Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle…” (CNN.com)
“There is no single narrative, I found, about modern Soweto. Yes, the shopping mall was gleaming, but across the road were some down-at-heel buildings and bored-looking youths slouching against piles of tyres, seemingly unable to shop if they wanted to.” (The Guardian)
“A new, five-star hotel overlooks a tract of the squalid, plumbing-deprived homes. Restaurants and inns cater to foreign tourists, but local schools are so bereft that some students cram into vans before 5 a.m. to get a better education in distant communities.” (Fox News)
Same formulaic definition
Bara bridge, Soweto, 3 February 2014. Source: iseeadifferentyou.tumblr.com.
Internationally, Soweto has retained much of the negative perceptions it accrued during apartheid years because of news media that have hung onto a reductive and careless image created by fairly lazy global media. It’s much easier to perpetuate an existing image, to latch onto the same formulaic definition that other media use, than to investigate the reality on the ground.
As a result, as a destination brand, Soweto has been tainted by the way it’s perceived by remissive global media.
Why has this happened? People are lazy thinkers, and would rather ‘pigeonhole’ information than go to the effort of digging deeper. We often scoff at foreigners who don’t like to engage with the cognitive dissonance of considering, for example, that Africa has many poor people, yes, but it also has billionaires, entrepreneurs and creative geniuses. But sometimes we, too, are guilty of the same thing.
And when it comes to thinking, people—for the most part—are very binary. Things are good or bad. Not many people appreciate the cognitive dissonance that complexity brings.
Soweto is not just one place
Kliptown, Soweto, 12 December 2011. Source: iseeadifferentyou.tumblr.com.
Similarly, when it comes to brands, people’s thinking is normally “black-and-white”. Either a brand is good or it’s bad. But we know that Soweto is not just one place — it’s a sprawling city-within-a-city, home to rich and poor, with a rich history of both civil unrest and realised potential.
But how then can people’s perceptions be changed? What’s up with Brand Soweto and how can Soweto show the world what it is?
Enter the intrepid trio of Sowetan youths.
“I See a Different You is a project that we started as a passion project which was cool and… very close to our heart,” explains Innocent in an Adlip interview on YouTube, continuing: “It’s all about portraying the world the way we see it.”
It started as a photographic project in December 2011, with the three friends taking pictures in Soweto, using themselves as models, with a quirky juxtaposition of fashion and Sowetan streets. Later on they expanded into other areas, such as Alex[andra] and downtown Joburg.
But these are not your average snaps done over with an Instagram filter.
Each shot is carefully composed, with close attention paid to lighting and styling. One shot has two of them sitting on a wooden bench in the middle of a Soweto street, their snappy outfits framed by a deep blue sky and picturesque painted houses. In another shot, they pose in Marshalltown on a bright yellow road construction divider, the yellow street lights casting an eerie glow over everything. It’s arty, without being pretentious — and self-effacingly ironic at the same time.
Dhlamini, Soweto, 9 January 2012. Source: iseeadifferentyou.tumblr.com.
The photos were posted on a microblogging/social network site known for photo-sharing.
“Then it got legs”
“We first launched our project on Tumblr,” says Innocent Mukheli, “which was the hip thing happening, and then it got legs and so a lot of people picked it up. And then we launched it on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook…”
To date, the I See a Different You Tumblr site has garnered 50 000 followers, while the pro-Soweto ‘campaign’ has acquired over 12 000 on Instagram and, last time I checked, it had over 4 700 Facebook Likes.
But for the trio, the attention the project has garnered didn’t stop with social media: they were approached by clothing retailer Markham to do a shoot using their unique style, for store shopfront visuals and print material.
“Actually it surprised us,” exclaims Mpanthsa in the AdLip interview, “because we didn’t think it was going to go this far; when we started, it was a hobby.”
Markham 2012 behind the scenes. Source: Instagram.
The style of the self-appointed brand ambassadors for Soweto is an ideal fit for the Markham target market: touted as southern Africa’s largest men’s clothing retailer, Markham has become more hip and trendy in recent years, embracing “street fashion” movements such as mixing smart and casual — such as jeans worn with a blazer. It was a smart move for the retailer to get behind this trend.
More recently, the trio have had the opportunity to travel, and continue to produce its quirky take on life in other African countries… letting the world see Africa through less jaded eyes.
This could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of a change in Soweto’s image, both locally and abroad. And it proves once again that great things can come from small beginnings.
Check out I See a Different You on:
- Tumblr: iseeadifferentyou.tumblr.com
- Like their FB page: www.facebook.com/ISeeADifferentYou?fref=ts
- Tweet them at Twitter: @iseedifferent
- Scope them on Instagram: instagram.com/iseeadifferentyou
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Oresti Patricios (@orestaki) is the CEO of Ornico, a Brand Intelligence® firm that focuses on media, reputation and brand research. If you are involved in making advertising that is smart, funny and/or engaging, please let Oresti know about it at [email protected].
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