For two years Space Doctors has been investigating South African culture and brand communications first hand. This forms part of a broader stream of work within Space Doctors, directed at understanding how brands can best address the opportunities posed by newly emerging markets.

Analysing Brand Meaning in Developing Markets

In developing markets, understanding brand meaning often calls for a more anthropological approach — this is particularly the case in South Africa, which is traditionally seen as an ‘oral culture’ and has a much narrower range of publicly available media to draw on for analysis. This means there is a need to go beyond formal media such as TV or magazines and instead access the cultural environment which brands occupy more directly. No amount of desk-based research can substitute for an approach which also includes on-the-ground interviews with academics, journalists or creative entrepreneurs; observational immersion within different retail environments; as well as engagement with popular culture through grass roots media such as Facebook, blogs and the internet.

To the analyst seeking insight into African culture, many barriers present themselves – mobility and access complications, omnipresent security issues and the presence of multiple languages (both official and vernacular) to name but a few. Not to mention the tendency of South Africans to adorn well-known brands with innumerable nicknames. Quiz: what globally renowned car brand is known as the “Soweto taxi”? What number one beer brand is known as “Soweto Pepsi”? (answers below.) On the other side of these hurdles, though, whether in city centre, suburbs or “ekasi” (townships), one finds personable, empathetic people eager to make connections across racial and cultural divides. This sounds paradoxical but paradox is crucial when it comes to leveraging emergent codes in developing markets.

Self-Aggrandizement vs. Honouring Ancestors

A widely held belief about developing markets is that status is all-important and that brands are defining tools in marking progress towards a modern, urban lifestyle.

A recent project looking at codes in female beauty helped illustrate and provide further understanding around this point.During the project, the tendency amongst South African women to invest heavily in elaborate hairstyles was remarked upon and explained through recourse to a well-known local saying “You can’t wear your house on your head”. The phrase can be understood to mean “Because you can’t display your worldly possessions wherever you go, if you want to demonstrate who you are, you must pay close attention to crafting your personal appearance”. On first impression, this is a fairly familiar idea, existing in many different cultures. However, cultural experts were at pains to point out that, in South Africa, this phrase is more than just an expression of out-and-out materialism and self-aggrandizement. The implied meaning is that conspicuous consumption through brands is also a way of honouring your ancestors’ legacy and the hardships they have undergone. The phrase reflects how collective and individualistic impulses as well as material and spiritual associations are often closely inter-twined and embedded in the meanings that brands and products hold for consumers.


Despite being an oral culture, then, Africa “reads” products and brands with acute sophistication. The status of emerging markets like South Africa as futuristic, acquisitive and at the same time in touch with enduring cultural norms provides a fascinating context for brands. Marketers who wish to connect in a meaningful way with emerging markets must tread carefully — context is everything.

Answers: “the Soweto taxi” is the VW Golf. “Soweto Pepsi” is just one nickname held by South Africa’s leading beer, Carling Black Label.