According to a CNN report, South Africa’s emerging middle class have quickly matured as a retail market. Saturated with brand information through the mass media, these consumers are increasingly immune to the hard sell, traditionally defined. To reach them, corporates have adopted an entirely new, uniquely African, platform.

Bring on the zonal champions. Zonal champions – a term coined by South African marketers The Creative Channel – are individuals who market a brand on a person-to-person basis. They are essentially non-celebrity brand ambassadors who bring the brand into day-to-day interactions otherwise devoid of a commercial presence. The genius, and the risk, of this concept is the same: by bringing a brand promotion into private life, the brand is at once entering a space free from competitors but also ripe for backlash. Not everyone wants a family member pushing one brand of washing powder over another at a meaningful family event.

However, South Africa has long been a niche leader in innovative marketing and advertising, and the zonal champion concept is a refined form of word-of-mouth – the holy grail of marketers – that relies on the tact and savvy of the zonal champion him- or herself to finesse the entire process.

Zonal champions make a certain kind of sense when you consider the size of the market of poor and middle-income South Africans: they are easy to train, they tend to come from the nation’s large pool of long-term unemployed and low-skilled, and they have unmatched penetration into rural and township communities. However, in a context in which global manufacturers and multinational corporations increasingly use South Africa as a springboard, the prospect for word-of-mouth micromarketing by members of a local community takes on a very different prospect.

What in South Africa is an extension of formal marketing to reach the margins of the consumer market is in the rest of Africa – in the high-growth-low-base countries that manufacturers hope to reach next – the entire market, or close to it. Products, branding and sales techniques tested in South Africa have a much higher chance of succeeding in the initial push into the rest of Africa than corporate strategies dreamed up in Europe or North America.

Zonal champions not only promote products but are a valuable source of real, embedded feedback. For example, serving sizes that are too large, and therefore too expensive, for what should be an impulse-buy product can be brought down, as soft drink manufacturers have found in Africa. This has spurred them to bottle and can drinks in smaller quantities, based simply on the sales figures for different serving sizes.

The information zonal champions can offer to corporate headquarters is more fine-grained than mere sales figures. These brand ambassadors, who are embedded in their communities, know what sells, what doesn’t, and why – and their feedback will, in time, help those companies serious about success in Africa to refine their product offerings entirely.

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