Cashing in on perception
Creativity and intuition the mark of the brand
IF PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS ultimately determine reality, then Thebe Ikalafeng – founder of Brand Leadership – has the influential job of moulding public opinion in the cut and thrust of a brand-conscious market. “A brand is an extension of one’s lifestyle or simply a reflection of who you are or a vision of where you are headed,” Ikalafeng says of his company’s basic philosophy.
He’s squarely on to something. For example, public perceptions of the South African Revenue Service have traditionally been negative – resting principally on a daunting and onerous tax filing procedure and punitive consequences for defaulting taxpayers. Even worse, Revenue’s multiple green and yellow branding only served to obscure its positioning in the market. Until now.
Few would dispute Revenue has undergone a remarkable makeover. Its brand consolidation into a single blue colour backed by a consummate message of improved and efficient service delivery is eye-catching. What most taxpayers don’t know is that the man behind that radical makeover is Ikalafeng. The end product of his handiwork is a more direct relationship between a company’s market positioning and bottom line – which makes perfect sense in a market more open to competing products.
Says Ikalafeng: “These days South African consumers across the racial and income divide are quietly savvy about brands and the market positioning of their service providers. And SA companies – especially those in the telecoms sector, where there’s been a record proliferation of start-ups – are always keen to stay a step ahead of the competition.”
Indeed, between them cellular groups Vodacom and MTN have spent well over R1bn annually in building their brands. “That best illustrates the opportunities in the local branding and marketing industry,” Ikalafeng says.
How did he cut his teeth in the nearly R700m/year industry? It’s a question Ikalafeng takes great pride in answering. He says his rise to one of SA’s top brand specialists has the hallmarks of a serial risk taker. He says his most daring decision was to quit his studies at Wits University with barely 18 months left to tion and creativity. “The ability to spot the limitations of a product and public perceptions thereof and then recast that product in the market. You’ve got to keep your head up to know which businesses will be pitching branding opportunities. That means having a huge contact base in the market with a view to pitching for contracts.”
In essence, that’s been Ikalafeng’s business strategy. That combined with a highly creative team of young, up-and-coming brand enthusiasts. The proof is in the number of high value clients Brand Leadership has been able to add to its portfolio of clients, among them State utility bulk freight carrier Transnet, the University of South Africa and the SABC.
Though Ikalafeng declines to divulge the company’s turnover, Finweek’s annual AdReview – a compilation of various branding and marketing trends – rates the company among SA’s top five revenue spinners. With 19 employees, its turnover was almost R25m last year. complete his accounting degree.
“Had I stayed a day later (to write the paper) I could have missed out on an opportunity to join toothpaste and detergent manufacturer Colgate Palmolive, which had offered me a position in New York. I had no choice but to pack my bags and leave for the US.”
It was a decision he doesn’t regret. In hindsight, it’s his stint at Colgate Palmolive in the US that gave him real exposure to the workings of the global branding and marketing industry. On his return to SA he briefly worked for Colgate SA before taking up an even more challenging position that would involve launching a new sports clothing range in a heavily contested market.
“Ndaba Ntsele (CE of investment group Pamodzi) recruited me to market Nike, which made its debut in SA in 2001. The fact that Adidas and Reebok were more entrenched in the market couldn’t deter me.”
Almost a year into his position he grew Nike’s revenue in SA by 460%. That feat proved even more decisive, in that it gave him the courage to launch a greenfield branding business of his own using savings he’d accumulated over the years.
“The fact that I’m self-opinionated has largely helped to shape my marketing career. Had I heeded the advice of others, I wouldn’t have gone to the US and later on joined Colgate Palmolive.”
Of course, hubris and conceit – two characteristics Ikalafeng has in abundance – were integral to his success. For starters, he wouldn’t have taken the plunge when he ditched his studies. Neither would he have had the self-confidence to spot and exploit an opportunity that rests on the assumption his product offering is far more seductive than those of his competitors.
In fact, self-confidence and seed funds are arguably the only two hurdles to breaking into the brand business. Fortunately, Ikalafeng got off to a good start. His initial two contracts – the first a brand repositioning exercise by a financial services provider, then Revenue’s brand consolidation drive – gave him a “huge kicker”.
What distinguishes Ikalafeng’s company from his competitors in the business are intui-