News Navigation

How Do You Localise, When We Are All Similar?

Press Release - South Africa, 24 July 2018

“Siwe, you are going to Uganda to workshop The Big Easy.”

‘Uganda’. ‘Siwe’. These were two names that I never in my dreams, nor my ancestor Shaka’s wildest imaginings, thought would live so comfortably together in a whole sentence. What in the world would Siwe, a South African relate to in Uganda? I think everyone can relate to the notion that stepping out into anything that is not familiar, will inevitably bring something else. That ‘else’ is somehow always expected to be  ‘different’. And, as my stay in Kampala unfolded, I found it more and more fascinating that Traditional Marketing has taught us to look for the differences between people, so that Differentiation can happen. When we should be doing the opposite. Innately, we should intuitively be looking for things that help us to relate, or help us find a commonality between each other as human beings. This, is how universal insights are born.

Let me list a few of my lightbulb moments:

  • COLOUR:  Against a backdrop of red dust hung – or pierced – an insatiable use of colour. I think Africans gravitate to colour – through clothes, aspirant statement tees, fabrics, brands painted on walls – because it is a signaler of hope and aspiration against a backdrop of hardship and dire straits. Whether you are in Entebbe, Uganda or in Nongoma, South Africa. Same same. 
  • LANGUAGE: How was it that even when I found myself miles from home I could still figure out what my Ugandan sister was saying in her mother tongue? The Nguni dialects stretch all the way from the South African coastlines to just north of the equator and this fact somehow gets lost in the yellowed pages of our high school history textbooks. Knowing the African Migration story is an interesting one, because by understanding it, we as advertisers can start making considered ‘dialect’ advertising from the premise of similar sounding words. 
  • COMMUNITY: There is no language without community. I discovered the word ‘okulanga’, which describes the ‘announcement culture’ within the proximity of an informal community radio platform through which the community can say and hear the latest community ‘news’ that floats loudly through the air. Ugandans respond well to megaphones. Ugandans love noise.  South African rural or township culture: same same.  My mind fetches the files of the announcement culture of the specials outside of Jwayelani Butchery in Empangeni.  
  • GETTING AROUND: The first word I was armed with before the actual trip was ‘Boda-boda’. Little did I realise how much currency knowing that word is. Boda-boda is the scooter taxi system that literally weaves commuters through the streets to their next hustle.  South Africans would call it ‘iLocal’.  
  • THE GOVERNMENT’S ABILITY “TO KEEP UP”: "I’ve only seen one president in my entire life.” is what my new-found Ugandan colleague commented during our insights-sharing session to shape the context that help us land our strategies. Government has failed to keep up in different respects and that’s probably why Africans have a love-hate relationship with their respective governments. Infrastructurally, the Ugandan government has failed to keep up. And, in many, many parts of South Africa, the same is true -  where corruption and incompetence undertones are visually depicted through the infrastructure we see.


There are things in Uganda from a communication, visual and contextual point of view that are the more or less the same 4823kms away, in South Africa. When I think about the challenge of finding universal human insights, this is where it begins. It’s not about a geographical consideration … but more about shared motivations and behaviours. So now that we have established a case for ‘same same but different’, what implications does and should this have for localisation for marketers? Firstly, what is localisation? And why does it always seem like an after-thought, instead of a considered exercise? Simply put, it is the way in which we can tailor communication, so that it is received by the (international) audience in question.

Cross-cultural digital media advisor, Dr. Nitish Singh, offers the following detailed definition: “In an international marketing and advertising context, localisation pertains more specifically to adapting company offerings and communications to locale-specific expectations. Thus, marketing localisation is more specifically analysed in context of the four Ps (product, placement, price, and promotion). But in terms of digital media, and more specifically the web, localisation entails adaptation based on cultural, linguistic, functional, technical, and other locale-specific requirements.”

Aha! So, it is definitely more than just slapping a local voice-over on the same ad (European car category ads LOVE doing this.) or just a toolkit/ad translation exercise. Uganda, Kenya et al are literally giving the ‘Respect us’ side-eye to the communication that we give them to execute. There’s a lot more work to be done in terms of finding similarities … and then digging deeper. How can the South African advertising industry do better? In Africa, cash is king, but so is nuance. Even in similarity, there is nuance. For example, in a family structure, the members are of the same surname, there is nuance. Similarly within Africans, there is nuance within our similarities.

How do we find it? We have to create spaces to have meaningful, empathetic conversations.  Why do we need to find it? Well so that we create work that also gives us returns. According to a Kantar Valued Added Thought leadership study, in 2017 just over 75% of marketers on the African continent don’t believe that brands on the continent are marketing effectively to African women. And that’s just to women. What about to African men and women as a whole? Marketers and advertisers need to do a rigorous, well-thought out job of finding similarity and then unearthing nuance. Because then work will not only be grounded in great universal insights and ROI, but brought to life in a way that, well, a Ugandan…and fellow Africans can recognize as their own.


Sources: “6 Reasons why you need localization” article – Martjna Wojtas, Kantar Value Added Thought Leadership Study 2017

This article frirst appeared on in a column called African Echo. African Echo seeks to unpack markets in Africa, highlight business opportunities and share insights into what works and what rebounds. Siwe Thusi CA(SA), is a qualified chartered accountant turned creative strategist at FCB Africa and a working photographer. She has 3 years’ experience in strategic planning on some of South Africa’s big brands in different categories and industries in the above-the-line space.