From September to November 2016, I toured Europe for speaking in conferences and events from London and Brussels to Zurich and Berlin. Europe is where I cut my teeth as a road warrior, travelling constantly for work during more than a decade. Therefore, in the build up to the tour, as I’m contemplating the itinerary on a desk in an apartment in Nairobi Kenya, I sense a bit of deja-vu. Given the dominating narrative in the news coverage about Europe in 2015-16, where the continent is painted as old, monochrome, moribund, I might conclude that I will experience the same contexts, dynamics, interactions. Nothing could be further from the reality.
In fact, on the ground, Europe has a new face.
As cities are entering the fall season with a heartbeat upping its tempo and a wardrobe embracing darker colours, massive advertisement campaigns with African faces are rolling out everywhere. The Amsterdam Netherlands headquartered denim brand G Star Raw is running a big campaign covering bus stops and metro stations with black models. The company said they include members of its personnel.
In Belgium, the supermarket chain Delhaize is campaigning for seasonal local fruits. The ambassador is an African pre-teen sporting a wild afro and brandishing a chubby pear, which is a traditional symbol of Made-in-Belgium products.
The clothing brand Mango is advertising a new collection with a young, colourful, curly haired twenty-something year old black woman. The billboards are highly visible in Switzerland as ad space is in limited supply in the local urban landscape. Also, across the country, as soon as you enter a store of the clothing brand Esprit, an African gentleman standing on a human-size cardboard display invites you to become a Preferred Customer.
The list goes on and on.
Is this news? After all, campaigns starring African celebrities from the realms of sport, fashion, music and television have become a mainstay in the European media for at least two decades; from Liya Kedebe of Ethiopia, one of the world’s highest paid supermodels, being the face of H&M, L’Oréal, Louis Vuitton; to South Sudanese model Alek Wek, one of the fashion industry’s most recognized names, representing Benetton, Saks Fifth and Kenzo; to Ivorian football player Didier Drogba fronting Turkish Airlines campaigns.
Yet, two elements lead to the conclusion that what’s happening today belongs to something bigger than seasonal campaigns. First a survey conducted by Shutterstock, the international online image library, in association with the research firm Censuswide reveals striking trends in the use of images of diversity by marketers in the UK. Secondly, based on my weeks-long research in the streets, retail stores, airports and train stations in four different countries, I’m examining the new roles that European marketers are assigning to Africans in their campaigns.
Shutterstock and Censuswide found that when it comes to selecting images for campaigns, the great majority of marketers in Great Britain opt for those that represent modern day society over simply promoting a brand message.
Specifically, 71% of marketers choose racially diverse images, rather than messaging about a brand (30%). Overall, the survey reveals that around half (49%) have used more racially diverse images over the past twelve months.
As a side-effect, marketers are using fewer images of white models in their campaigns, with around a third of marketers saying they now use fewer images of “Caucasians” (34%).
“Marketing, like many other fields, has a diversity problem” says Robyn Lange, Shutterstock’s Curator. “The people chosen to represent campaigns have an obvious and visual impact on public life. Therefore, marketers need to be more inclusive through their choice of images”.
According to Ms Lange, diversity and inclusion, far from being buzzwords or quotas for businesses, are the driving forces behind recent campaigns from Heineken, Oreos, Kellogg’s, Tiffany and Co, Doritos and Absolut.
“Our research shows that marketers are shifting their attitudes. [They] are influencers in their field who understand that marketing needs to reflect the diverse range of communities which are present in the UK.”
But precisely how are Africans depicted in advertisements? Are they used in an essentialist approach where the message plays with their skin colour to gain credibility for, say, pure cocoa dark chocolate, or to create contrast with flashy paint colours for instance? Or are Africans part of a “total market” approach where, rather than being confined to messages targeting specific consumer groups, they are included in broad messages aimed at the general market?
I found five new roles marketers are assigning to Africans in mainstream campaigns. Some roles are part of innovative, unconventional discourses, others come with greater expectations in terms of starting a conversation and engaging consumers.
1- BRANDING NORMALCY
The great majority of the Africans fronting current campaigns are non-celebrities, no-names, average-looking people. Most of them you would not recognize even if they feature in multiple campaigns. This is a notable departure from the avenue often travelled so far by marketers as the few African brand ambassadors were movie stars or fashion supermodels.
Over the years, the must-be-celebrity tactic had even fuelled the argument advanced by many observers that Blacks were visible in the European media only once they were perceived as bankable and risk-free options by advertisers and marketers.
Today, in numerous campaigns the notions of normalcy, every day life, current affairs are embodied by Africans. When it comes to give the realest possible picture of today’s Europe, brands’ message is: on any given day, most likely you will share a cup of coffee, an office space, a train ride, an emotion with an African. From this picture of Europe with its African component emerges credibility and relevance.
2- BRANDING LOCAL
In a Zurich shopping district, I randomly picked and entered fifty small and medium stores in the grocery, clothing, electronics and jewellery categories. I asked owners and managers whether they would consider using Africans in their marketing visuals. Forty-four answered “I would do it”, “I can consider” and other variables in the same vein.
Due to highly publicized campaigns in the last two decades, from the controversial Benetton ads to the Desigual campaign starring the Canadian model Winnie Harlow – considered as one of the biggest marketing coups in the last five years, the general perception was that involving racial minorities in mass marketing is the exclusive territory of major brands as they are seen as better equipped for aggressive tactics or transcending scripts.
The reality is that local brands and new players are increasingly taking the diversity route in an unapologetic fashion. When it comes to advertisement campaigns, product launches, in-store promotions and store openings among other marketing actions, many local businesses want to have African ambassadors.
An example is the Swiss shoe brand Ochsner who has deployed a nationwide in-store promotion campaign with at its core a giant poster starring an African woman. They see their campaign, not as a way of making noise, but simply as an organic way to talk about and promote the diversity they experience every day at a grassroots level, in their stores, whether it’s via suppliers, customers, or personnel.
Another example is the Italian eyewear company Snob who writes its name coupled with “Milano” in all its promotional material to reinforce its local identity. Yet the face of its branding is a young African woman. Quite clearly for this new player in a crowded eyewear industry, the goal is to be an influencer and make a difference.
3- BRANDING ASPIRATION
In 2016 the global dairy company Danone has embarked on its biggest campaign ever to reposition its yoghurt brand Activia. With the motto Live In Sync, Danone targets thirty-something year old female consumers it has identified as a health and nutrition conscious group.
From singers and actresses to A-list stylists and Olympic gold medal winners, Danone marketers usually pick public figures for fronting their campaigns at country level (at global level their ambassadors have been the singer Shakira and the actress Jamie Lee Curtis).
Nevertheless, in a bid to make Activia “an inspirational lifestyle brand with a mission to help women unlock their potentials”, Danone marketers have also made a radical choice: in Belgium, Activia’s ambassador is an African woman whose face Belgians have never seen before, whose name they’ve never heard of and would be able to pronounce only with long practice.
Danone’s rationale is that to be genuine about starting a conversation with young women about going on a personal journey, achieving balance, being “in sync”, what’s better than a fresh face combined with an unconventional name. To give more emotional weight to the portrait of a holistic and creative approach to wellbeing, the ad mentions the profession of the ambassador (textile creator).
4- Africans also stand for the future, entrepreneurship, dynamism, change…
5- …and for togetherness, personal development and growth
It is worth mentioning that the current campaigns are multinational. With minimal adaptations, they roll out across national borders within the broader European space. The Esprit campaign with the African youngster is in stores in Brussels, Zurich, Paris, and Berlin. The H&M campaign with the Ghanaian/British model Adwoa Aboah occupies outdoor billboards in London, Paris, Berlin. In that sense, they do more than recognizing diversity where it is a longstanding ingredient of the society, they also present diversity in places where it may be a burgeoning reality.
Traditionally marketers would start their creative process by focusing on the general market – in other words, White consumers – then at the end of their process, they would look at how to adapt things to specific consumer groups. Today brand strategists simply want to do good marketing within a multicultural space and incorporate the ethnic dimension at the research and design stages.
As ethnicity plays a role within the context of all other human dimensions such as life stage, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, businesses and brands willing to be relevant, engaging, authentic will embrace this redefinition of good marketing.
Cover photo of Patrick Gaincko courtesy of Sina Lou Ravasio