No Logo’, a book written by Naomi Klein explored the way corporations discovered and perfected the art of branding their products. Whether you agree with Klein that the shift towards the brand was a dangerous one or not, it is quite clear that the modern brand is here to stay and today we have the ‘brand’ in a variety of guises all following a similar template of product transcendence.

Curiously, despite a rapidly expanding business sector, branding has not quite taken root in Rwanda. In fact, only a handful of companies could be said to have embraced the power of the brand and the three most successful are familiar- MTN, BCR and Bralirwa

For sheer creativity, MTN reigns supreme. Being a continental corporation, it has had years to hone its craft before arriving in Rwanda, there is no denying that it has taken branding in this country to the next level. In fact, one can say that it gave birth to branding as it exists in the country today. Blanketing the media with ads, sponsoring countless events, setting up attractive billboards with their distinctive yellow- the MTN blitzkrieg has paid off.

MTN are clearly trying to anchor their brand in the mould of a vibrant and feel-good company; young at heart, but a veteran on the scene. Bold without being too brash, MTN tries to impart a sense of joie de vivre and through a plethora of sponsorships and programs, also aim to portray themselves as a caring company. With their new series of ‘GO’ adverts, MTN has shown its philosophical side, the ads are replete with inspirational messages, encouraging people to fulfill their potential and reach for the impossible.

This strategy is not without its dangers, the very ubiquity of the MTN brand does annoy some people and in some quarters, makes the company look like an aggressive invader of public space and the network problems that have plagued them over the last five months have not helped their image either . However, on balance, MTN have clearly been a successful and effective brand and have stamped their image on the public consciousness in a way no other company has managed to do.

BCR have also successfully branded their company and like MTN have tried to showcase their vibrancy. They have also placed an emphasis on innovation, repeatedly launching new promotions and incentives and have, like MTN, successfully straddled the line between coming across as being youthful and yet experienced.

In sponsoring Crossfire on Contact FM, they are also positioning themselves as the bank for the intellectually astute. Added to this package is the extra dimensional, in the form of surreal humor exemplified by the ‘How Do You Eat a Watermelon?’ billboards that have baffled and amused in equal measure.

With those billboards, BCR have signaled a boldness and willingness not to talk down to their market. They appear to have grasped one of the essential tenets of branding- it is not a literal manifestation of your company. If every company limited their advertising to exactly what they were, branding would be a redundant exercise. In this sense, BCR’s watermelon ad was a tremendous trailblazer. It may be too soon to tell how successful the ads have been, but it is fair to say that BCR is taking the art of branding to new and interesting levels in the country. And the mere fact that everyone has been talking about the watermelon ad marks out the campaign as something of a success, obviously the clearest indication of a branding misfire would be facing total apathy from the public.

Bralirwa has also achieved major success as a brand. Using the ‘Billboard Explosion Strategy’, Bralirwa has erected colorful billboards with young good looking people, whose lives seem to revolve around that oh-so-tasty drink. One particular billboard, featuring a woman taking a long gulp of a Coca-Cola, is a brilliant ad: utter satisfaction condensed in a single image.

However it is not all about billboards and soft drinks. Last year Bralirwa launched their sleek, new Petit Primus. Petit Primus was intended to target middle and upper-class drinkers who considered the older unwieldy bottle too cumbersome and suggestive of lower-income tastes. It is an interesting experiment and appears to have achieved a large degree of success so far. Indeed shifting the attitudes of the targeted market so dramatically is one of the most successful examples of branding in the country and is incredibly hard to do considering the task they faced in attempting to challenge people’s deeply held prejudices to one of their products. It also shows that sometimes the genius of branding is that utter simplicity can bring about a huge change, in this case making the product, smaller and more compact.

Yet aside from the big three few others in Rwanda appear to be interested in branding themselves effectively. Some have made partial progress. Rwandair Express has been making some big gains in this regard with their ambitious approach of trying to make the airline the very embodiment of the country’s hopes and dreams. A few others are showing some promise; Rwandatel for example is worth keeping an eye on as it reinvents itself.

However one wonders about the lack of presence of the other brands. Most attempts at branding from local companies come across as either half-hearted or unsuccessful. A good example is COGEAR. They have a catchy jingle accompanying their television ad but the ad itself is bland and, sadly, instantly forgettable.

Radio stations also provide a good illustration of this problem. Most of them don’t bother to create their own niche in the market or target any demographic- they merely play homogenous contemporary tunes and yet even the choice of music could prove to be a smart piece of branding. Likewise many companies are just a mass of indistinct, generic brands making little effort to stand out of the pack. Granted advertising, sponsorship and other methods of branding don’t come cheap, but neither does making your company distinctive name on the market.

Perhaps the underlying cause of the lack of branding is an aversion to thinking outside the box. The same mindset that sees a dozen pharmacies all open side-by-side on a typical street corner in Kigali. It is also likely that many companies simply underestimate the intelligence of the market little realizing that you don’t need a particularly sophisticated market to become a major brand. Advertising, the bedrock of branding, is often experienced at a gut level and few of us would be able to articulate exactly why an ad works for us because it hits us at more than just a conscious level.

It is also likely that many companies just don’t realize the value of branding and think they can do just fine without it. However with competition in all sectors growing increasingly fierce and with an increasingly sophisticated market out there, it is inevitable that branding is going to dominate the future.

By Minega Isibo

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