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February 20, 2019

Lacking purpose: Too many brands sit on the fence

When you look at our region, there are perhaps fifteen serious business categories driving economies. In some of our markets all categories are represented, in others there may be one dominant player and less than half a dozen competitors. To be honest, that’s not really competitive.

Yet in some key sectors, regulators have already failed us. Particularly those whose duty is to restrain the giants. Restrain does not mean punish, restrain means apply a touch on the brakes when it looks like bank A or telecom B or Ad Agency C is running away with the market. But perhaps East African monopolies and competition watchdogs are looking in the wrong direction. Dazzled by the legal muscle, the financial canniness or whatever other distractions the biggest enterprises in our region can array. I saw in the papers yesterday that Kenya has just hosted a forum on anti-competitive behaviour. I’ll be looking to see if anything meaningful emerges from that. And so should you, because consumers will be too.

Weak restraints on anti-competitive positions don’t bother small companies or niche brands very much. Small companies don’t steal – or borrow – market share. More often they create more choices, new capabilities and new franchises. Small companies know if they try to compete on the same terms as the big boys they’ll lose.

So, as small business experts ask, "Why play their game when you can invent your own?" LSU goes on to say: "Small companies should create and capture new markets. Rather than copying incumbents, they will thrive by meeting unmet needs."

By contrast, mid-sized brands that lack true purpose are the most vulnerable to poor regulation and there are plenty of them in our region. Some are reforming after years of traditional management. Many are family businesses going through generation change – always painful but often yielding profitable outcomes. Some are former parastatals. 


A common feature however is that most have been poorly branded. I don't mean, by this, that you can’t see them, or wouldn't recognise their logos. I mean that they are stuck in the middle ground between brand leaders and niche brands. Which means that consumers don’t really care whether they thrive… or perish.

Brands stuck in the middle ground tend to fight battles on all fronts in an attempt to stay relevant. They may try to hold on to both ends of their categories – simultaneously dropping prices while trying to creating more premium offerings. I see it all the time in the briefs they write: "Engage with urban youth without alienating rural middle class" or "This brand was male but is now appealing to both genders."

Unfortunately, when you’re competing on all sides, it’s easy to forget your original purpose. If this is your business situation, then it’s worth taking a moment to ask yourself why you deserve to exist - over and above the need to make a profit.

You may be surprised to hear that social media brand Twitter is a good example of a company that got quite big… and then got lost. With the arrival of new platforms like Snapchat and Vine, Twitter has realised that it no longer offers users a compelling reason to use. Is Twitter for news? For chats? For networking?

Realising how important it is to have purpose, Twitter went and asked Twitters to #describetwitterin3words.

Most of those words were unwelcome, but at least they gave Twitter something to work on. "I don’t know" was pretty popular, as was "needs less stalkers."

Unlike Twitter, plenty of mid-sized brands haven’t yet realised that they’ve  lost their purpose. Lost their place in consumers’ lives. So, very helpfully, LSU has given us three symptoms of purposeless to look out for: 

1. Purposeless companies work in silos. 

Without a unifying purpose, departments tend to hunker down and just get on with doing their day job – whatever that might be. What is clear is that their job has nothing much to do with anyone else’s. Companies with a clear purpose are the opposite. Teams join up across silos to achieve a shared goal which is delivering on a purpose that is much bigger than any one department.


2. Purposeless companies do everything – and prioritise nothing. 

Companies with purpose have a "not to-do list". They make sacrifices because they know certain things distract them from their core purpose. Too many companies think offering "affordability, quality, authenticity, convenience and great service" is their purpose – which basically equates to "we offer everything, but are expert at nothing".

3. Purposeless companies navigate by the competition. 

The phrase “It worked for them” is another top symptom of a company without purpose. It’s all too easy to react to every new market trend; "it worked for someone else, so it’ll work for us, right?"

Rather than living in a state of knee-jerk reaction, purpose-driven organisations attempt to create and capture new markets they can dominate. They would rather be the first to spot and serve an unmet consumer need than desperately defend their share of a declining market.

This all makes sense to me, and it rings very true in East Africa. So, if you recognise any of the above traits in your brand or business, it’s probably time to refresh your approach. Go back to your brand promise and work harder on it. Then share it with your staff so that they can deliver it.


Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.



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