The power of a gesture in business

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille created quite a social media stir a couple of weekends ago when she took to the street outside of her official residence, Leeuwenhof, and started directing traffic.


The scene, filmed and shared on Instagram by an impressed onlooker, generated all kinds of reactions on Twitter from star-struck admiration (“What an absolute legend!”) to outrage (“You took the law into your own hands!”).

Instagram tommmygotagun Helen Zille directing trafficThe traffic outside Leeuwenhof in Cape Town is particularly bad on Saturdays these days because of another of Zille’s unexpected and seemingly impromptu actions: she offered the grounds of her official residence to the Oranjezicht City Farm (OZCF) Market Day when its usual spot got mired in red tape. This was also a controversial move — with some saying she ignored due process to use state land and others expressing huge gratitude that she saved OZCF, a beloved non-profit, community-run organic market.

In both cases, the narrative that Zille fans trumpet is that she gets her hands dirty, and will do whatever it takes to fix things and do what is best for the people who voted for her. Her actions have been contrasted to blue-light brigades and Nkandla, driving home the point that she is accessible, down to earth, and doing it for the people.

It makes you realise the power of gestures, grand and small, to tell a story and shift perceptions.

Talk is cheap

Marketing, just like politics, is full of bluster. Marketers are all trying to convince their target audiences that their brands are the best — and so advertisers are under constant pressure to speak in a way that stands out from the clutter. Whether it’s creative and conceptual or simply shouting loudest about the lowest prices, huge amounts of time, money and resources go into telling the most compelling, attention-grabbing and powerful story to the consumer.

What politicians remind us of is that actions speak so much louder than words. Consumers, just like citizens, need evidence of the things that you say. At a minimum, that will convince them to believe and trust you. At best, it will spur them on to tell your stories for you — to share their amazement on social media and sing your praises to the detractors.

But how many brands have really mastered the grand gesture?

Making the right move

The reason the OUTsurance pointsmen system is such a brilliant and enduring act of marketing is that they perform this brand gesture at exactly the right time and place. They are there to help when the going gets tough and our robots are load-shed [or, in Jozi, rain-struck — ed-at-large]. They prove that “you always get something out” and they do it with actions, not words. Drivers discover them for themselves; they aren’t just told about them in a radio advertisement.

In the context of a much smaller brand, I was pleasantly surprised the other day to discover that The Butcher Shop & Grill, an upmarket and expensive steak restaurant, offers traditional Xhosa side dishes to accompany its premium cuts of meat. There is umnqusho available, and morogo and pap. It struck me as a very cool gesture, extending the halo of fine dining to African cuisine which has all too often been overlooked. It is probably also a gesture of welcome to a new generation of fine-dining patrons.

A well-placed, well-thought-through gesture can do wonders for building a brand. So how can marketers get it right?

  • Be authentic. Gestures lose all credibility when they are done as a publicity stunt. Consumers can smell inauthenticity from a mile off. The intention shouldn’t be to PR the hell out of your action; it should be to impact uoon the people who experience it so positively and powerfully that they tell your story.
  • Be unexpected. No one expects a premier to stand in an intersection directing traffic. It is not a gesture if your actions are mundane and common. Imagine Exclusive Books opening pop-up trailer stores at high schools and giving away textbooks for free. Imagine Pick n Pay cooking meals for the elderly.
  • Reach out to people. Gestures are powerful when they are acts of service and love — whether to your desired consumers or the people who are important to them.
  • Be clear on the narrative that you are trying to communicate. Gestures are symbolic. So be clear on what you are symbolising.

Nelson Mandela wearing a rugby jersey for the 1995 Rugby World Cup was a small but hugely powerful gesture of goodwill and reconciliation. It has gone down in history as a key moment in this country’s nation-building, perhaps the biggest brand building project to date.

If marketers could find the right poignant moments and offer acts of service or symbolism that resonate with the people they are trying to attract, they may well discover it gives them much more goodwill than a cleverly worded ad campaign or a 50%-off sale.


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