Brand South Africa: How best to attract foreign tourists?

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Anneleigh Jacobsen, with her husband Greg, in the Addo National Elephant Park (Photo supplied)

A brand is a way of communicating what you have to offer. It’s a kind of shorthand to communicate the benefits and values that your product or service makes available to potential customers.

Anneleigh Jacobsen used to be a brand manager (and marketing manager) in Sandton, working for multi-national and national fast-moving consumer goods companies. She now runs her own consulting brand management company from Cape Town and has clients all over the world.

Jacobsen is the author of Corporation games, a corporate thriller, and has just completed a master’s degree in values-driven marketing at the University of Cape Town.

Izak de Vries asked her about ways to attract foreign tourists to South Africa – especially since South African Tourism (SAT) found it prudent to want to sponsor an English football club.

As we speak, the Tottenham Hotspurs deal seems unlikely to go ahead.

I am more interested in marketing South Africa as a destination. So, let us start at the beginning: what is a brand, and what does a brand manager do?

A brand is a way of communicating what you have to offer. It’s a kind of shorthand to communicate the benefits and values that your product or service makes available to potential customers. There’s a much-used quote by Walter Landor that says: “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.” So, while a company or person can own a trademark, a logo, a URL, a product design and even the copyrights, the only place a brand truly exists is in the mind of the consumer. A brand is the holistic, expanded idea that is built around a product or service for the purposes of making the benefits of that product or service known to those who could benefit and might want to purchase those benefits.

And a brand manager (alongside the marketing manager, marketing director, COO and CEO) is there to keep that whole train on track. A brand manager is the person tasked with protecting and growing a brand in order to benefit both the consumers of the product/service and the company or person who owns it.

Is South Africa a brand? Or, better perhaps, should we market South Africa as if we were a brand?

Country branding is a thing, yes. It’s a subset of a specific type of marketing called destination marketing, and its purpose is to market the country (or area, or city, or attraction) as a brand. That is, it is to give it a branded identity and make it known to those who might be interested in visiting it, in order to benefit the economy of that area or attraction.

In a previous life, you worked on Five Roses, a leading tea brand in South Africa. I am correct that a brand manager’s job is not so much to make people want to buy tea, but to have a customer in a shop automatically reach out for your brand of tea, and not any of the other competing brands? Or am I oversimplifying?

You’re talking to the purpose of advertising here. And that purpose depends on many things, including the objective of the brand (what does it exist to do?), the life stage of the brand, the current socio-economic context, the target market, the industry context and the specifics of the category involved. With tea, for example, it’s a highly developed category that the majority of the world knows and learned to use in their childhood homes. So, in that instance, you’re not educating on the category, but you’re either creating awareness of the brand, or you’re ensuring that you stay top of mind, so that you’re part of the consideration set at purchase. In the case of a new brand or a new category, you could be doing both education and awareness building, for example. It very much depends on the current situation of the brand and what it needs to do.

There is a reason for the tea question. People want to travel; we don’t have to create a market for travel. In 2015, the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggested: “A family trip is the second-highest priority for the booming middle classes, after buying a car” (page 25). We should, therefore, find ways for the middle classes to want to choose South Africa, not so?

Firstly, a lot has changed since 2015, with the COVID lockdown having the obvious meteoric impact. It does look like tourism is resurging globally, but the return rate has been slower than expected generally, and the “how” and “where” and “why” of people travelling have also been impacted. During the lockdown, obviously travel was actively cancelled, but as early as March 2020, data started showing that travel (and other categories) was likely to resurge back to pre-lockdown levels in the medium term.

Source: Screenshot – “Are you ready to navigate growth in a COVID-19 world?” – Kantar webinar, 31 March 2020

Without knowing what the research is saying or who SAT is targeting as a result, the general objective of any marketing around South Africa as a destination should be focusing either on creating awareness and consideration of the destination (ie, have you heard of South Africa? Have you thought about visiting?) or on bringing the benefits to life for the consumer (ie, did you know that South Africa has these amazing things to offer, is safe for tourists and is super great value?) in order to encourage them to visit.

Right now, the messaging may need to be doing a combination of reminding people that South Africa is a truly great holiday destination, and also addressing the key concerns people may have about visiting. I would be surprised if the key issue for SAT right now was pure awareness – most people have heard of South Africa and are likely still to have the basic association of Nelson Mandela with the brand. So, we probably don’t need to tell people that South Africa is here; we likely need to remind them of all the things that South Africa has to offer, and support that with messaging around things like value for money, safety and the positive social and economic impact of travel for local people.

In this tweet, Chester Missing, our famous puppet, accuses the CEO of SAT of being “tone deaf” for suggesting that it would be wrong to spend some of the money earmarked for Tottenham Hotspurs on infrastructure in South Africa.

I will come back to infrastructure, but first a simple question: would it be wrong to spend taxpayers’ money on branding South Africa as a tourist destination?

Firstly, that is a fantastic rant by Chester!

And then, to answer your question, whether or not money spent on marketing South Africa as a tourist destination makes sense depends on the work that has (hopefully) been done by SAT. They would need to be absolutely certain of an excellent ROAS (Return on Ad Spend) or other measurable increases in things like awareness, consideration or other measures before committing money to advertising. This is the same principle that applies to any advertising spend. The questions that need to be asked are: what do we want to achieve here? Will advertising achieve or help achieve this outcome? What kind of return do we expect? How can we measure this return?

To be clear, sometimes return is measured in less direct ways than revenue generated as a result of the ad spend, but even those other forms of return should be forecast and measurable in some way. In this instance, I would assume that SAT has done the work with Treasury and/or other economic and business models and determined that this spend would result in X number of additional trips to South Africa, which, in turn, would mean an increase of Y million rand in tourism money spent in South Africa. This, then, can be correlated to the amount spent, to get an indication of ROAS and make the decision clearer in terms of the investment in advertising. Even if they were not looking for a direct ROAS return, I would at least expect this investment to break even, given the quantum of it, and the current global and local economic situation.

In general, investment in advertising is seen to lead to higher awareness, consideration and purchase of a brand; otherwise, we wouldn’t see nearly the level of advertising that we do on a daily basis. However, I do think that each and every instance of advertising investment should be able to be justified logically and have clear, measurable objectives set out. Otherwise, it’s just vanity spending, which, in this case, is an absolute slap in the face to a tax-paying public that is living with 50% unemployment, rising costs of living basics, a failing electricity supply, crumbling infrastructure and ongoing corruption.

Now onto infrastructure: the WEF has made studies available that show how important government action is in times of turmoil (both quotes from page 55): “During the crisis period itself, the immediate priority is to demonstrate exceptional crisis management capabilities to minimize losses, ensure tourists’ safety and limit excessively negative media perceptions.” And a few paragraphs later: “Pre-emptive planning of crisis management, rather than a reactive response, is a key success factor.” Does our favourite puppet have a point in saying that keeping the lights on may be a better way of attracting tourists to our country than sponsoring an English football club?

Absolutely. There is no good way to spin load-shedding in an ad for South Africa as a tourist destination. Candle-lit dinners can only get you so far when you can’t charge your phone, use a hairdryer or watch TV while you’re on holiday.

This is a case of the product needing attention first, and then advertising following that when the offering is really great again. Do we want people to stop coming here? Of course not. But can we justify spending money on advertising South Africa when the basics are failing? No. Focus on fixing the basics, so that the people who are coming have a better experience and go home to tell others about that rather than the random, unfathomable load-shedding schedules, potholes and endless informal settlements along the highways.

The latest research by the WEF shows that sustainability and political governance have become more important than ever in tourism – the lockdown has changed the way the world thinks. The WEF said in 2021: “In order to ensure a productive and long-standing recovery, the sector must incorporate lessons learned from current crises and ensure better preparedness for future headwinds, many of which can be historic and long-term in nature and impact” (page 6). If you were to advise SAT on how to market Brand SA, what would be the five bullet points to work on?

I’d be looking for ways to make it easier to visit and to support the recovery and growth of the sector, either directly or indirectly:

  • Build a long-term influencer marketing campaign with diverse local guides and tourism operators – benefit from their profiles and reach, and support their growth simultaneously.
  • Work with government to make it easier to visit and work in South Africa in terms of visa requirements, permits and certifications/documentation, especially for things like film crews, longer-term/digital nomads and destination wedding trips.
  • Create a Netflix (or other!) series on amazing/peculiar/unique/crazy places and tourism projects around South Africa, with an interesting international celeb as host for star appeal and using all local production resources (with an amazing “Behind the scenes” TikTok account, too, obviously).
  • Incentivise sustainable travel and projects: offer tax breaks and/or carbon offset points for anyone who comes to South Africa or travels internally. Planting trees is always a good thing!
  • Come visit me! Create refer-a-friend vouchers for South Africans to share with their friends, family and colleagues around the world. Vouchers could include travel discounts, accommodation deals, free tickets to attractions, VIP experiences, and carbon offsets or other sustainable/social support additions.

While SAT was pondering sending millions of our money to a single football club, the Hong Kong Tourism Board has made another announcement: they are giving away 500 000 airline tickets to kickstart tourism to Hong Kong. How’s that?

Fantastic idea! Direct, clear and an irresistible reason to visit. Very smart, indeed.

We live in the era of TikTok and Instagram. Oldies, like me, do Facebook. Some even hang around on the Bluebird site. Influencers on these platforms often attract bigger numbers than traditional media. Had I had a billion South African rand to spend, I would have targeted some major travel writers in various parts of the world, including influencers on Instagram and TikTok. I would then have invited them to South Africa for an amazeballs adventure of their choice, and to each of them I would have allocated 100 air tickets to South Africa, to be won by their followers. What would you make of that?

Yes, totally agreed. Influencer marketing is a great option for destinations, because not only do they have a wide and varied reach of like-minded people, but they also carry credibility that pure advertising and sponsorship do not. Yes, we know they are being paid because they declare that (or the good ones do, at least); but that is transparent, and we know from their feeds what they like and how much to trust their viewpoints, so we can make a much more informed decision about what they have to say. And, as a bonus, you can get a diverse array of viewpoints out there, which is much more interesting and representative (in all ways) of South Africa than any single-point ad campaign could be.

I am all for attracting foreign money, but how about making local tourism more accessible? Coca-Cola, that rather big brand, purposefully invests in local partnerships. In a recent advertorial in a major Dutch newspaper, the NRC Handelsblad, Coca-Cola’s Dutch headquarters, situated in Rotterdam, made a point of explaining that they invest heavily in local, Rotterdam-based football, and that each of their staff is encouraged to spend two days, fully paid by Coke, doing charity work in Rotterdam. One may be cynical, but is there not a point in sponsoring local South Africans to experience the joys of our own tourism industry?

Yes. Local and community investment is always a good idea for a brand dependent on the maintenance of that community. There may be a very good business and support argument to be made for focusing on getting locals to travel and invest in South African tourism first, but there are also excellent ways to leverage a really strategic small or local sponsorship investment to gain much larger impact. Take, for example, the Burger King “Stevenage Challenge” sponsorship of the 4th division Stevenage club, which garnered them millions of gaming views on FIFA 20 and dollars of sponsorship value through smart strategy and viral sharing.

Thinking local: would it not benefit the entire country if we could help more local companies to market and brand themselves better internationally?

Totally. There is much to be gained for both the individual companies and the overall “visit SA” from spreading the message across multiple brands, media and voices. One of the core ideals of South Africa is “embracing diversity”, and this approach to promoting tourism would be a wonderful way of actively demonstrating that, while also getting the word out, as it were.

Last question. What can I, ordinary Izak, do to help attract people to our country?

I think that South Africans are amazing at approaching life with good humour, so sharing the funny, quirky and also amazing things that happen is always a good start. And, while I don’t advocate ignoring the obvious elephant in the (dark) room, remember that always harping on about all the bad stuff, without either doing something about it or also sharing the good stuff, doesn’t help anyone. Be yourself and tell everyone you can what you love about where you live. If everyone did this, imagine how many interesting places we’d all want to go and see this year!

  • Photography: Izak de Vries (apart from the first photo)

See also:

Openbare verontwaardiging oor sokkerborgskap

Hoe gaan dit met toerisme in Suid-Afrika?

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