Credibility: Africa's Ultimate Currency: Harnessing Africa's Oral Tradition Can Help Companies Gain a Foothold on the Continent

Article excerpt

Africa's strong oral tradition means that word of mouth is arguably the most powerful and persuasive communication tool on the continent. Companies looking to expand here cannot afford to overlook this cultural factor. Because of the strength of word-of-mouth communication, ensuring positive customer experiences, regardless of industry, is critical in establishing the ultimate currency for business in Africa: credibility.

Communicating with clients and customers has become more vital than ever over the past several months. The global financial crisis has made it imperative to engage with one's target market on a regular basis--anticipating needs and concerns, and responding where appropriate. For many companies and brands, corporate communication has therefore moved from being ad hoc and "nice to have" to being strategically indispensable, with businesses diverting advertising funds to public relations activities.

While PR can be used to achieve a number of objectives, perhaps its most valuable aspect--and the one currently in greatest demand--is its role in creating credibility. When consumers perceive that editorial content is objective and generated completely by journalists, that means that media relations practitioners have done their job, effectively influencing what consumers think and believe about brands. Public relations can give companies access to consumers' hearts and minds, creating a point of resonance and, ultimately, trust.

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Building trust through local traditions can give businesses the key insights necessary for brand success. Africa has long been recognized as a market that is both lucrative and challenging when it comes to establishing brands. While some brands such as Coca-Cola and MTN have succeeded in establishing them selves, others have encountered what seems like inexplicable resistance. What many outsiders fail to consider in the context of Africa is the link between oral tradition and credibility. By using one to support and fuel the other, communicators can create a viable pathway for future advertising and marketing campaigns.

Despite the occasional embellishment in creative storytelling, oral tradition has its roots in the truth and is a highly trusted source of information. We see examples of oral tradition at work especially in West Africa. Here griots--learned storytellers, entertainers and historians--memorize the family history of everyone in a village, going back centuries. Thus, they are considered a source of fact and wisdom within local communities, and their opinions are highly valued and respected.

In Zulu culture in South Africa, oral tradition plays a part from the name a child is given at birth to irnilolozela, or lullabies, and izilandelo, word games played by children. Religious and political events also inspire new forms of spoken art. Izibongo (praise poetry) is part of annual Shaka Day celebrations around the country. The internationally acclaimed musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo practices the isicathamiya style of singing, which employs praise poetry; the group's songs originate orally before they are mixed and recorded.

Communication remains personal and local

Oral tradition is a trusted form of communication in Africa, partly because of the predominant lack of information and communication technology infrastructure. An outdated telecommunications infrastructure and bureaucratic legal and regulatory environments mean that much of Africa does not yet enjoy a genuine "information society," especially when it comes to the Internet and groups with a lower Living Standards Measure (LSM), as rated by the South African Advertising Research Foundation. In many instances, the media is state-owned or state-influenced, restricting the flow of unbiased information. While TV has a presence in most homes, access to satellite channels must be paid for, restricting access to international views and commentary to those who can afford it. …