Dale Tomlinson, chief executive of The Hardy Boys, an independent Durban-based communications agency, told the Financial Mail that some international businesses regarded Africa as one region or country.
But he noted there are 54 countries and over 2,000 languages in Africa. "There are cultural differences," he said. "You have to understand this and be sensitive to it, you can't rush blindly into Africa."
He observed that 60% of the continent survived on less than $2 a day. "That makes them loyal to brands they know, that have been used by their parents and work for them," he stated.
He advised honesty and transparency as the best approach, saying that consumers will want to know why they should use a different brand to their current one, how it will work for them or make their lives easier.
"You can't pull the wool over their eyes," he said. "That's why we tell clients they have to be honest and the brands they are trying to launch must have integrity".
He also remarked that many international brands had failed in their initial attempt to launch in African markets and were now coming back for a second go.
"I think the biggest mistake they made was arrogance," said Tomlinson. "Africa is chaotic and challenging and needs to be approached differently."
Ignorance was another factor and he stressed that brands should never underestimate the amount of research required to penetrate markets and that necessarily entailed visiting the countries.
"Deep understanding of consumers and local insights is vital," declared Tomlinson.
His comments come as Procter & Gamble has shaken up the detergent market in South Africa, aggressively launching its Ariel product into the market and forcing Unilever, the long-time market leader, to revise its marketing strategy.
Data sourced from Financial Mail; additional content by Warc staff