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WELL it's not really a current project as much as an ongoing project. I have been colleciting stuff (info, ideas, pictures and footage) about Cecil John Rhodes for a long time, with the eventual idea of making a documentary about the man and his knock-on effect in southern Africa. The recent Rhodes Must Fall campaign on the UCT campus promised lots of action so we packed some gear and rocked up to find more than 2 000 people with various agendas jostling around the statue. It came down and the crowd went mad ... mob hysteria. In the meantime we cut a micro-doccie (is there such a thing?) to remind ourselves of the event. And the footage is safely stored on several hard drives. Have a look if you are interested.                                      


When Planes Fall Out of the Sky, How Brands Suddenly Lose Value and Things Inexplicably Become Pear-Shaped

WHEN Germanwings’s Flight 4U 9525 crashed in a remote French Alps valley in late March en route to Dusseldorf from Barcelona and all 150 occupants  perished,  German airline Lufthansa suffered an immense setback in brand identity.

Germanwings is wholly owned by German carrier Lufthansa, the largest airline in Europe. In the minds of millions of travelers all over the world, things that are German should not go wrong, especially when it comes to airlines. Yes, I will unashamedly use stereotypes here to help convey my message because when trying to understand brands, stereotypical persona often assists in addressing the issues in hand. Besides, would it not be silly to argue that most of the world doesn’t think stereotypical thoughts much of the time?

To make matters worse, the co-pilot who deliberately flew the Boeing Airbus into the side of a mountain, Andreas Lubitz, was a German. Not a Pakistani, Solomon Islander or Nigerian. He was 100 percent Teutonic in origin. Subsequent investigations indicated that he was in all probability, mentally unstable.
How could Lufthansa have allowed a situation to develop where such a person assumed sole control of a passenger airliner? Now the organisation will have to count the cost to its reputation for years to come. It’s doubtful whether people will ever really forget this brand-damaging disaster. It’s also possible that Lufthansa may never fully recover from this tragic chain of events.

I would go so far as to say that every one of us harbours stereotypical sentiments when it comes to such things as airlines, cigarettes, motor vehicles, beverages and even sunglasses. We like them or dislike them for very definite but often subjective reasons. We believe in these brands; are prepared to pay extra money to acquire them or use them for reasons that are at times difficult to fathom.


Not many people can fully understand and explain the phenomenon of brand loyalty because it involves measures of dogma and illogical faith. There is a story that resurfaces persistently (some say it’s an urban legend) about a certain NG dominee. He was trained at Stellenbosch’s Theological Seminary, and after acquiring his understanding and perception of faith in a Christian context, relinquished the cloth to embark on a career in advertising. It is reputed that he really did understand why consumers religiously supported favourite brands in the same way that others might support their faith. Apparently he did very well.

Unfortunately this person’s key to the understanding of the Holy Grail of Brand Mystics was never widely disseminated. So we still do not have a complete grasp of what it is that makes us fervently want and acquire commodities that are much the same, yet project different identities. We know that this phenomenon exists but we cannot really get our heads around it in its entirety. It’s got something to do with the Human Condition and being an individual in a society, itself comprised of numerous other similar but different individuals.


We tend to believe in ‘German Engineering’. It’s a notion that sits comfortably and without fuss in our outer consciousness. Things tend not to go wrong if they have been ‘German Engineered’. These thoughts are supported by the reputations of German cars: Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen. I must confess that I have written advertising copy that exhorted the Germanic origins of industrial gearboxes. When I asked my client what was really so good about these gear boxes he replied impatiently: ‘They’re German-engineered, arsehole!’ And that was that. To this day they remain German-engineered; although I suspect that they are now made in China.

Our predilection for stereotypes leads us to believe that things are organised and engineered in Germany are (tick the right box): good, reliable, solid, durable and well made.


In Italy on the other hand, commodities are created with ‘passion and flair’. Expectations are different.If the pilot of an Alitalia flight had been having problems with a voluptuous opera singer that he had been having a torrid affair with, flung a bowl of spaghetti and sauce all over the flight deck floor then impetuously crashed the plane, somehow it would not have been so awful.

Italian motorcycles are works of art. They delight the eye and thrill the soul.  The brands of Moto Guzzi, Ducati and MV Augusta come to mind.

Italian food suggests passion, promises flavour and exudes vitality. German vehicles are efficient, swift vehicles that fulfill their design mission of safe transport and durability. German food is sensible, filling and mostly unpretentious; it could never be accused of being la dolce vita fare.

italianfood. I                     germanfood.

And so we go on: we could discuss Britain and classy Bentleys, France and Parisian fashion, the United States and its Harley Davidsons that offer unbridled freedom of the road. We can move away from national identities and introduce other elements that further extend the complex mix that is brand identity.


Whether brand identity has integrity or not is another matter altogether. For instance a businessman may opt to always stay in a hotel that belongs to a certain hotel group because from past encounters, that group’s promise of clean, value-for-money good service has always been met. A family may visit Spur steakhouses because of the brand’s promise of enjoyable, fun-filled family meals at reasonable cost is always delivered. These perceptions of brand identity have been informed by direct experience.  It could be said that these institutions have earned the integrity that their brands communicate.

In the case of some of the ‘global’ brands such as Nike, Calvin Klein or Gap, recent history has shown that they fell well short in the integrity department by using child labour in Far East sweatshops. The knock-on effect was devastating: not only did it draw attention to the fact that many of these fashion labels spent more money on branding or positioning their products in affluent societies, than they did in the actual production of the item itself.


Fairly recently, right here in South Africa we had a David-and-Goliath situation when a small KwaZulu-Natal Midlands soft drink manufacturer that clashed with Woolworths. In a small building in Balgowan, entrepreneur Mike Schmidt and 12 workers made the Frankie’s range of drinks that included Fiery Ginger Beer, Cinnamon Cola and clear Cream Soda. The Frankie’s drinks communicated a distinct retro message – reminding the consumer of the rock ‘n rolling days of soda fountains and Elvis. Schmidt was never going to take on Coca-Cola; he was aiming at a niche market with his carefully crafted drinks that found market acceptance in the segment that he had targeted.

Woolworths also wanted something special to offer the upmarket segment that Schmidt had identified. Instead of starting from scratch, Woolies took the easy route and launched its own version of Frankie’s products that had similar labeling and titles. Woolworths CEO Ian Moir denied that the retailing giant had lifted something from the Frankie’s brand. However the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) thought differently by ruling that Woolies remove the phrase "Good Old Fashioned" from the labels of its retro soft drinks.  Woolworths subsequently removed all of its Frankie’s lookalikes from its shelves and to the public’s delight, David had conquered Goliath.

Even if Moir’s protestations had been credible, the damage to the greater Woollies brand was huge. For many years it had been building a brand that communicated the following qualities: pure, healthy, a cut above the rest, ethical, consumer-friendly and quality-driven Suddenly as result of a spat with a tiny supplier, it was reduced to  what many people out there perceived as being a copycat, brand thief and bully.


We can look at the case of Royal Dutch Shell and fracking for oil and shale gas in the Karoo. This practice of extracting fossil fuel from beneath the surface of the earth has come under intense scrutiny and debate around the world. When areas of the Karoo were divvied up and handed over to the oil and gas prospecting companies, our President, Jacob Zuma promised that mineral discoveries in the Karoo would be a ‘game changer’ for South Africa. The environmentalists on the other hand  have displayed a different view of the benefits of fracking.

Shell along with other small prospecting companies, bulldozed ahead, met every step of the way with stiff resistance and criticism from anti-fracking groups. Only recently Shell announced that it was withdrawing its programme – not because of the environmentalists, but because with the price of crude oil plummeting, it was no longer economically feasible. Cynics say that with the inevitable future rise in the petrol price, it won’t be long before Shell is nosing around the Karoo again. The fact that President Zuma endorsed the programme did not help because for many people across South Africa’s social spectrum, the Zuma brand itself is in dire straits.

There was a price to be paid. Shell lost the respect of many South African motorists. Its determination to pursue the fracking potential of the Karoo diminished its brand considerably in this country – even to the extent that some of its critics started boycotting its products. The familiar payoff line ‘Go Well, Go Shell’ now sounds somewhat hollow to many South Africans. It is logical to assume that a person would want to trust the petrol or oil that he or she puts in a car. If Shell cannot be trusted as a reputable multi-national, then who can?


In summary it seems that the deep meaning of ‘brand’ is this fantastically complex mix of logical and illogical components. Some of these elements are controllable; others are completely beyond the influence of the organisation that owns the brand. Some elements contain national identities; others rely on contemporary culture and icons. Damage control to stricken brands is often possible, but sometimes not feasible. Nike had to work hard to restore credibility to its brand after the child labour expose (but the stigma will exist for a long time to come). Other fashion brands in the same boat never recovered. Building a successful brand is not for sissies.

Points that the history of branding has us taught over the years include:
•    Be original at all times. Authenticity is a key component. Work on differentiating the product from rival or similar products
•    Be honest at all times. People want to believe that what they are spending their hard-earned cash on is made with integrity and is above board.
•    Respect your consumers’ intelligence at all times. Don’t dumb down your audience.
•    Think creatively and out of the box. Strive to be clever, informative, friendly and different.
•    Be socially and environmentally responsible at all times. Do not create a brand that damages the environment or harms people outside your intended    
      market segment
•    Create a brand that has ‘long legs’. i.e. it should be built for the long haul, not for a flash-in-the-pan result.
•    Be aware of prevailing popular culture and use this creatively and judiciously in building the brand. The brand must be relevant to the times.
•    Do not forget the importance of a value-for-money component in the brand.
•    Use historical presence in the market wherever possible, but avoid creating a fictitious history.
•   Germanair example, be prepared to go back to square one and start building that brand all
     over again. Patch jobs often exacerbate marketing disasters.
*  And finally when planes do fall out of the sky as one did in the Germanwings example, be prepared to go back to square one and start building that  brand 
    all over again. Patch jobs often exacerbate marketing disasters.
Andrew Newby April 2015

PREVIOUSLY ON PORTAL VIEW including FarSide projects and subjects like Making Your Own Videos and Why Do Firms Lie?, Current Projects: The Approachable Professor Swart, School Prospectus, What is a Real Job?

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