Alex Steer

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Asking last year's questions

1111 words | ~6 min

So, I've now landed in New York, picked myself up and rearranged the furniture. I've also, happily, started at my new place of work. All of which means my several weeks of nomadism are over and I really should get back to writing here again now that I have a reliable internet connection to play with. (Which, by the way, feels astonishingly fast after a year of variable-speed South African broadband. No wonder so many digital strategies feel so impossibly grand. Who knew it was this quick? I'd quite forgotten.)

I've been thinking about South Africa again today, though, and over the last couple of weeks on and off, as part of an interesting series of chats with various smart people on the subject of consumer research, and especially international consumer research. Yes, interesting consumer research. Really. Don't stop reading.

Still here? Good. This is the bit where I remind you that selling anything (products, ideas, political movements, etc.) is a lot easier if you understand what's interesting to the people you're trying to sell to, and that a good way to do this is to understand what they're doing and feeling, and listen to what they're saying. Unlike the physics of jet propulsion, this is not rocket science. Unlike being hit by a rocket, it's not surprising, either.

But it's surprisingly easy to assume that understanding comes as a result of collecting the answers to lots of questions. So, if you make chocolate bars and you want to sell more chocolate bars in China, you might ask lots of Chinese people what they like and don't like about chocolate, how often they shop and how much spare change they have in their pockets, how concerned they are about their teeth rotting, etc. And voila, suddenly you have all the answers you need to develop your low-cost extra-cocoa sugar-free chocolate bar on the public and brief your ad agency to do a big brand campaign and some point-of-stale stuff to drive foot traffic in petrol stations and hypermarkets. Job done; thank you, consumer research.

And then the international cocoa trade collapses, and a set of draconian anti-snacking laws are passed, and peak oil shuts the petrol stations, and you've gone from Green and Blacks to black and blue.

Or, failing that rather drastic scenario, your target consumers don't change their opinions, and the macro-scale context of chocolate-bar making doesn't alter overnight. But you launch your chocolate bar, and after the launch the sales growth is a bit disappointing. You lie awake at night wondering why your bar isn't doing as well as its equivalents in the US and Great Britain. And only after a while do you notice that there's been a long-term shift, and most of China's spending power is not in the hands of the chocolate-loving old guard but in the wallets of a new generation of bubblegum-chewers who have no historical reason to find mashed-up cocoa beans interesting at all.

You realise that you either asked the wrong questions, or you asked the wrong people.

Which brings me back round to South Africa, a country where a lot of market research has started to learn that it's been asking the wrong people for much of the last ten years.

Marketers being pretty on the ball, they noticed in the mid to late 1980s that share of national spending power was gradually shifting away from rich urban white people. They identified a new segment of young, well-off black (and coloured, in the Western Cape) people whose interests and attitudes in the marketplace were different from those of the traditional consumer base. This piece from Time, back in 1988, was one of the earler pieces of international coverage of what came to be known as the 'Black Diamond' segment - young, black, upwardly-mobile, and a huge business opportunity.

Fast forward to the present and the black diamonds are ubiquitous in marketing. Cars, financial services, premium beer, you name it - pick a mainstream consumer category and you'll find ads full of aspirational young black men and women doing whatever young aspirational people do in ads. (Standing in posh bars laughing politely, mostly, or wearing suits.) In twenty years South Africa has moved from the point where no brands targeted the new black middle class to one where so many do that it's often hard to tell their ads apart. It's almost, but not quite, become an industry gag.

But here's the problem. While brands are still doing research, developing products and commissioning campaigns to target black diamond consumers, this is a story about South Africa that's twenty years old. That doesn't make it untrue or irrelevant. It's just incomplete. To put it very crudely, the story still goes that South Africa has shifted from having one major consumer segment ('rich whites') to having two ('rich whites', 'black diamonds'). A lot of consumer segmentations you see in South Africa still have this as their underlying logic, surprisingly. 'Black Diamond' is also pretty much the only story about the post-apartheid consumer landscape that's known outside South Africa, so it tends to be used as a lens for analysis whenever South Africa is compared with other emerging markets such as the BRICs.

In other words, a lot of consumer research is asking yesterday's questions, designed for yesterday's people. In South Africa now, the really interesting story is not the emergence of the small 'black diamond' segment, but the emergence of the mass market - the huge middle-income consumer base of black and coloured people who are well on their way to controlling the bulk of day-to-day purchasing power in the country, and whose circumstances, attitudes and behaviours make them very different from either traditional consumers or the fabulous but few black diamonds. Brands and marketers are rushing to catch up with this new market that's emerging within their own country. Most international research, which typically does like-for-like comparison of consumers in different markets, is still missing the existence of mass-market groups like this in many different countries, by assuming that below certain income thresholds one doesn't count as a 'consumer'. Brands' scramble for South Africa's new consumers is evidence that the 'global middle class' does not consist of a few hundred thousand newly-wealthy Indians or Nigerians, but of hundreds of millions of people coming in their wake, and bringing their money, votes and preferences with them to the marketplace.


# Alex Steer (06/10/2010)