Engage Brandcraft, a South African brand development agency, is interested in Nigerian market. In this interview with Daniel Obi, conducted through the internet, its co-founder and brand strategist, Chris Human, said Nigerian economy, which was at one time predicted to take over from South Africa as the continent’s largest economy sometime around 2020, might conceivably do so by the end of 2014. Excerpts:

Could you let me into the world of Engage Brandcraft, its vision and mission?

Engage Brandcraft is a six-year-old passionate “new breed” branding agency – young but professional, playful but precise, which partners clients in delivering brand solutions that grow a company’s bottom line. Our vision is one of not only creating effective and engaging brand identities, but also helping to build them. We have a slightly different approach when we work with clients because we start with where they want to be, then work backwards to where they are now. Taking the brand development and placing it on a parallel stream to the business development strategy is absolutely critical. If the creative doesn’t grow the business, then we are not doing our job. That’s one of the fundamentals on which Engage Brandcraft has been built; a clever campaign or gimmick might win us peer awards, but we’re not working for our peers – we’re working for our clients. Engage Brandcraft is a privately-owned company currently based in Cape Town, South Africa. It was started by my business partner Ian Nel and myself after working for big name South African agencies, both full time and as consultants.

To you, what is brand development and why should organisations embrace it?

Brand development is one of those things that scare many chief financial officers rigid because they imagine there’ll be money flowing rapidly out of the bank account, but they can’t figure out exactly what they’ll get in return. The most frequent question asked by CFOs is: “So, you’re designing a new company logo and it’s going to cost what?!” The reality is if you’re doing brand development in the right way for your company and your industry the bill can be relatively small, but deliver large returns.

The most basic understanding of brand would be the name, symbol, term, sign, and design which identify your company’s services and products. It’s that – and a lot more. Your brand is about your identity as a business and branding is about defining the broader look and feel of who you are and what you want to say to potential clients through your image and their first impression of you. One of the most obvious elements of this is your business’ product or service, but so is the customer experience around that product or service.

You appear interested in Nigerian market, what is driving this interest?

West Africa as a whole is an exciting economic region developing incredibly fast, but Nigeria is extremely significant because it is a very large economy in Africa. In fact, Ernst & Young recently identified Nigeria and Ghana as falling within a group of 25 rapid growth markets (RGMs) that display strong growth potential and are – or could be – strategically important for business. Indeed, the Nigerian economy, which was at one time predicted to take over from South Africa as the continent’s largest economy sometime around 2020, might conceivably do so by the end of 2014. Businesses that are blind to the potential in the market are extremely short-sighted. With the world shrinking Africa is growing in prominence as a region of high economic growth and emerging consumer power. While for a long time economic activity in Africa was only seen through the paradigm of Egypt or South Africa, this is changing. The chance for South Africa as a whole, and Engage Brandcraft in particular, to be part of this African renaissance is beyond exciting.

Do you have plans to establish offices in Nigeria or do you want to operate from South Africa?

We hope to base offices in several African countries as we grow, because the development of African brands for the world market is critical if we want to reduce our general economic reliance on the export of raw materials and the much costlier import of manufactured products. Besides the economic drivers, Africa is a resourceful continent and given the right development platforms we can produce brands that are as good – or even better – than international brands we spend a lot of money importing.

As a firm based in South Africa, you know little about Nigerian consumer and the environment, won’t this be a challenge to you in brand development in Nigeria?

Part of brand development is market research, but a lot of it can be deduced across industries. To use a simple example, if you’re developing an airline brand for Europe, you’re going to use many of the same yardsticks in the creation of an African airline brand. We don’t for a minute profess to know everything about Nigerian consumers, but our versatility, strategic vision, creativity and experience in working in an African market will hold us in good stead and we learn more every single day.

Ultimately, we all want one thing: a strong economy built on a solid national foundation of commerce and industry with less reliance on loans or aid packages and more reliance on the increasing consumer wealth the solid national foundation creates.

What new value would you bring to Nigerian market as there are some brand development agencies already operating in Nigeria?

A vast number of brand development agencies around the world are what they call “creatives.” They do amazing work drawing pretty logos, but they don’t have the strategic business development talent necessary to grow a client’s brand across markets. This is not necessarily true of those agencies working in Nigeria, but we have a different way of approaching things. We start off with asking where clients want to be in 10 years or 20 years and then we create an integrated strategic and creative plan to make that happen.

African brands hardly make the world top list, what is the challenge and how can we correct this?

The biggest challenge to growing African brands has been local markets with little or no disposable income. It’s certainly never been about our products being inferior. The central issue is that it’s difficult to grow a brand if nobody in your country has the money to buy your product. An Accenture report on the African consumer market shows that since 2000, consumer spending in sub-Saharan Africa has grown at a steady 4 percent per year, reaching nearly $600 billion in 2010. The market is expected to be worth $1 trillion by 2020. The report says that the most significant contributors to growth are changing, with less reliance on exports and more reliance on domestic demand that is giving rise to an emerging middle-class who will become more demanding and more brand savvy as income levels and spending increase.

As that develops we’ll start seeing the emergence of the African Coca-Cola or the African Levis or the African Whatever Brand. As that occurs companies will hopefully have the brand strategies in place to initially breach borders, then breach continents. Africa’s growth and development as a marketplace and producer of goods and products is as a result of the hard work of many across the continent, but this work is not finished.

Rather than primarily being a receptacle for global brands, and secondarily a producer of our own – as is currently the case — we need to ensure the benefits of this growth are realised here, in our own African markets, by our own African businesses that require strong African brands – born, bred and owned here on the continent.

Many SMEs who desire to develop their brands can hardly afford the agency cost, how do you want to navigate this problem in Nigeria?

There is certainly a perception that only companies the size of Virgin can afford brand development, but that is utterly untrue. If a brand development agency isn’t able to offer you “starter pack” to “Rolls Royce” options and only put the expensive options on the table, find someone else. A brand development agency should grow with your company and help you develop a memorable, trustworthy, respected and admired brand. Your development agency also needs to understand the unique African communications infrastructure that puts mobile ahead of terrestrial lines and help develop your brand in that direction as well. There’s no point, if you’re an SME, in developing a magnificent website with all the bells and whistles if in reality you only need a mobi site that works fast and is user-friendly.

South Africans do business more with Nigerians than Nigerians do business with South Africans. What do you think? Is it that SA is not opening up?

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan addressed the South African Parliament earlier last month on his first ever state visit to South Africa. He said that the two countries will play a leading role in the African Renaissance because we have the economic power and diplomatic weight to influence other countries on the continent plagued by poverty and conflict. While he is right, perhaps the most important aspect of his visit was the signing of numerous treaties and agreements which will bring the two countries even closer together.

It is currently true that more of South Africa’s multinationals such as MTN and Shoprite/Checkers have integrated successfully into the Nigerian market, but a substantial portion of the entrepreneurs growing the South African economy right now are Nigerian-owned SMEs. I look forward to the time, though, when we will not talk about Nigerian business in South Africa or South African business in Nigeria, but about the dominance of African brands on the global market. It may sound far-fetched to some, but 30 years ago it was an absolute impossibility. We’ve already come so far and in terms of the future for Africa, the sky is the limit.

This article was first published on Business Day Nigeria