How to get your reference right


One of the great things about living, working and doing business in South Africa is the diversity that one encounters on a daily basis. The various nationalities, races, languages, class groups, cultures and the subcultures all make for a very interesting landscape — the kind of landscape that should be an artist’s paradise.

I use the words “should be” instead of “is” because I don’t believe our industry does enough to take full advantage of this diversity. We speak about it a lot and claim it as a competitive advantage on the world stage but, in my experience, more could be done by all of us.

Important distinctions

At a simplistic level, diversity can be explained by focusing on racial differences; however, at a deeper level, it is about the various social classes that make up our society. The two levels of distinction are both important; nevertheless, as our society evolves, class starts to play a larger role in explaining the differences between sections of society.

People who belong to the same class, regardless of race, generally tend to develop similar interests and tastes; yet cultural differences among them might still lead to different frames of reference.

The biggest myth among us is that western culture is understood and embraced by all.

This erroneous perception is fuelled by the media’s portrayal of western culture as the definition of popular culture. It gets lots of publicity and therefore enjoys wide distribution; however, this does not mean that everyone who is exposed to it assimilates it.

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Armed with this myth, many agencies treat western culture as a proxy or as a default for all depictions of the consumer world.

Get the references right

Human beings are visual animals. This is why clients fall in love with manifesto videos and audiovisual references. It is very important to get these right. Using the wrong references may have a fatal effect on a good idea. Most of the references we use when selling work to clients are from Hollywood, when SA has a thriving film industry that can assist us with locally relevant content.

But we can’t achieve this level of relevance and understanding unless we familiarise ourselves with local content. You can try and rescue the situation by explaining “Alice in Wonderland” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in two minutes to someone who’s never heard of these stories, but that won’t get you far.

My suggestion is two-fold:

  1. We need to study our clients so we can get a good understanding of their frames of reference, and
  2. invest time in familiarising them with references we are likely to use in the future.

That way we avoid making them feel stupid or uncool in meetings.

Do your own research

As a black middle-class marketer, there are many western references that go over my head, simply because they are not relevant or familiar to my frame of reference. What I often do is turn to my white colleagues for assistance but what I should be doing is my own research so I can get a deeper understanding of the target market I’m serving.

Growing up in the townships, my favourite past time was playing soccer — not watching Star Wars. So characters such as Darth Vader and Yoda, even though known to me by name, do not mean as much to me as one would expect, given my newly acquired middle-class status.

By the same token, the name Khethiwe from Generations won’t mean much to many of my white colleagues, even though Generations (currently in hiatus) has been the biggest TV programme in SA and it has English subtitles.

Experience, don’t ask

The trick is to experience these things and not just ask someone to explain them to us.

Embracing diversity means investing time and effort in understanding other races. It is not the responsibility of the non-white members of the team to unpack black, coloured or Indian consumers. It is also not the responsibility of my white colleagues to explain white consumers to me. White consumers or black consumers are not a homogenous group. There are language differences, cultural difference and class differences amongst consumers of the same race group.

In the same vein, it is wrong to expect one black colleague to be the authority on how black people consume advertising. Your black colleagues will give you a view but the responsibility to get under the skin of your target market, irrespective of race, lies with you.

Immerse ourselves fully

To take advantage of this diversity, we have to master it. We have to immerse ourselves fully in this tapestry of creed and colour before we can draw inspiration from it.

It’s time we got under each other’s skin.

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