How South Africa Approaches Destination Marketing and Nation Branding | Interview with Sithembile Ntombela

South Africa: hugely diverse, with at times messy politics but also full of life and a desire to improve, shape and create. Sithembile Ntombela, Chief Marketing Officer at Brand South Africa, in this interview introduces us to South Africa: its political, economic and social realities, its destination marketing initiatives and nation branding ambitions.

Sithembile, having previously worked in marketing for consumer goods, do you remember the first time you heard about country branding and destination marketing? What triggered your interest in working with Brand South Africa?

To be honest, the first time I came across the concept of Nation Branding was in 2010 when South Africa was preparing to host the world cup. There were several references then, made of how the previous countries that had hosted the World Cup had massive improvements in reputation and image.

I had been working in the FMCG industry for 11 years when I came across an advert for the brand and marketing manager for Brand South Africa in 2011. I got excited because I knew that I needed a change in my career and the universe opened the doors for me.

I knew the purpose behind promoting one’s country brand and how fulfilling that could be, as it requires selfless serving. I was thrilled to join Brand South Africa in 2011 and the Nation Branding journey started. I haven’t looked back since.

In your view, what does “Brand South Africa” stand for today?

Our country stands for diversity, Ubuntu and inspiration. It is a country that is full of inspiration, talent, innovation and numerous opportunities. As a country we are at a stage where we are brave enough to confront our challenges and brand disablers to ensure that we build a brave, bright and inspiring future for generations to come.

Our people remain a huge asset as they continue to be such an inspiration especially when one considers how they have played their part in showcasing why South Africa inspires new and different ways. This ranges from the Mama Esther who painted UK and US in IsiNdebele art, to Laduma Ngxokolo who made Brazilians insane with his IsiXhosa fashion wear.

Off course I cannot forget musical artists, such as Sho Madjozi who recently won a BET award, Black Coffee who are currently taking Spanish music fans by storm. And recently the Ndlovu Choir from Limpopo who made waves as finalists in the America Got Talent show.

The same is true in the film industry and creative arts space, with the likes of Terry Pheto who won the best actress award at the British Urban Festival awards in London. And our very own Trevor Noah, who hosts the popular Daily Show. South Africa is very rich with people that are talented, creative and skilled.

In as far as investment is concerned, the Department of Trade and Industry has introduced the InvestSA one stop shop concept to provide convenience for investors who are looking to do business in South Africa, as they find all constituencies in one place.

The InvestSA One Stop Shop initiative is geared towards providing investors with services to fast-track projects and reduce government red tape when establishing a business. It is part of the government’s drive to become investor friendly by improving the business environment, such as lowering the cost of doing business, as well as making the process easier.

There are still challenges that we are addressing, such as the cost of doing business or complexities with visas and permits. But we believe that these will eventually be the story of the past.

The beauty about South Africa’s economy is that it is one of a kind, with a highly diversified economy.

Our recent survey among place brand experts revealed perceptions of South Africa to be based on both strong positives (landscape, wine, nature) and negatives (crime, corruption). In your experience, how has the image of South Africa as destination changed over the last years?

Quite right, overall the image of South Africa is doing good and can get better. According to Bloom Consulting, South Africa remains the top Country/Nation Brand on the African continent. In the latest Bloom report South Africa improved its scores in two indicators – Social Media and Digital Demand – which could be indicative of brand prominence amongst the general public.

Nation Brands are built on brand associations which eventually impact on the perception of the country. In the case of South Africa tourism has played a crucial role in creating a compelling image about South Africa being a tourism and an investment destination of choice.

The question is simple: “what comes to mind when one thinks of South Africa”? Mandela, the beautiful landscapes and scenery, beautiful weather, affordability, its people, culture and heritage, sports.

Gobal events  – such as International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the 10th BRICS summit, the Global citizens concert and celebrating Nelson Mandela’s centenary through the Annual lecture where former US President Obama delivered an inspiring keynote speech – serve as affirmations that the world recognizes South Africa as a world-class destination.

South Africa’s economic engine continues to be powered by tourism, finance, real estate, agriculture, and mining. The country ranks as one of the top economies on the continent, and consumers have demonstrated an eagerness to adopt innovation and technology integrated into their brands to help them meet their needs and improve quality of life.

The country’s image did take a dive with the previous administration when one looks at issues of governance and corruption. However, this is being dealt with as we are on a path of renewal, which began with the election of the new President and his administration, and his investment drive, which is already showing positive results.

The fact that corruption is being dealt with through various commissions shows signs that we are a country that is determined to tackle corruption.

A few high-level achievements to note:

  • According to GCI data, South Africa now ranks first out of 141 nations for budget transparency. This clearly illustrates the robustly transparent political governance system of the country, anchored in the constitution of the Republic.
  • This data is also supported by the Open Budget Index, wherein South Africa ranks second out of 103 nations – clearly underlining the fact that South Africa has extremely high levels of transparency in its political governance system.
  • South Africa’s ranking on judicial independence also improved markedly, up fifteen positions in 2018 – currently at 33/141 nations.
  • Interestingly enough, following 2018, a year when local and global media carried extensive (and mostly negative) commentary on South Africa’s proposed Land Expropriation without Compensation policy, South Africa’s ranking improved in the areas of property rights, as well as quality of land administration.

To your mind, to what extend does the tourism brand impact SA’s success as Country-of-Origin, exporter of wines and other produce?

The country-of-origin concept is beneficial to the Nation Brand when used strategically and when stakeholders have rallied behind one central brand idea. This concept has worked well for South Africa, when one considers the role played by the business sector in this space. Tourism has been the driver of our country-of-origin effect for a number of years, as it carried – and continues to carry – the landscapes, culture, image and culture of South Africa.

South African brands, particularly those in consumer products and retail, are locally loved, and many have shown considerable innovation. As South African cultural and business exports change, this impacts the image carried by the South African brand.

Brands, such as Wines of South Africa, have built a strong and credible reputation in the wine industry. The same is true with South African brands such as Rooibos tea, Nandos (South Africa’s biggest restaurant export), SAB Miller, Spar retail stores and many others.

Tobias Grut in his interview illustrated how Nordic countries in Europe are working together across the region to be able to better reach audiences in emerging markets, especially Asia. Do you think this would be an example for African countries to follow?

With South Africa as the only country in Africa that is a member of G20 and BRICS, this means that we have a responsibility to contribute towards Africa’s agenda – economically and sustainably.

The fact that the President of South Africa will chair the AU in 2020 provides ample opportunity for regional integration and collaboration in strategic special projects that include infrastructure development and oceans economy, to name a few.

Brand South Africa has collaborated with Brand Kenya, Madagascar, Ghana, Botswana and most recently the Nigeria South Africa business forum. The objective is to promote investment opportunities and collaboration within these countries.

Africa is the second largest continent in the world both by population and land size – after Asia – and if resources can be channelled appropriately, it can turn around its economy in a positive trajectory.

Which aspects of your destination marketing work at Brand South Africa do you find the most challenging?

Politics are beyond what Brand South Africa Org. can manage, and they have a huge impact on the perceptions of our Nation Brand, our country reputation and image.

South Africa has a population of 58 million people that are totally diverse, and this can be a challenge when trying to accomplish a cohesive Nation Brand image and messaging. That is why it remains imperative to box cleverly by targeting stakeholders with reach and impact, get them to rally behind the Nation Brand proposition, as these stakeholders become your influencers on the ground.

In a nutshell, achieving a more coordinated South Africa strategy has been a challenge. That being said, having initiatives that we champion – such as the Nation Brand Forum and Play Your Part – allows Brand South Africa to positively influence stakeholders that are strategic messengers of the South Africa Nation Brand. These stakeholders become good ambassadors of the country in their own respective spaces; they live the brand, and they present the brand in a good manner.

Which trends do you observe in destination marketing that are likely to influence the work of country and destination branding professionals in the years ahead?

Identity plays a crucial role in strengthening the country’s competitive advantage. There are so many countries to choose from and often the culture and identity carried by these countries goes a long way in deciding which country to visit or to invest in.

Mastering how to deal with policy issues will continue to be a challenge. Managing the country brand requires that destination marketers have access to policy makers, so as to be able to influence the positioning of the Nation Brand.

Entrepreneurship led by citizens and personalities, in the era of growing social media awareness is the next big hit which – if utilized strategically – can carry the country-of origin-effect.

Securing adequate funding for place branding and marketing initiatives is often a challenge. How do you measure success and demonstrate return on investment of your branding work through Brand South Africa?

We follow a number of indices and measures of impact. Some are outsourced and some we commission using our research partners.

The investor perception study that is led by Brand South Africa Org. gives us a view on what investors think about South Africa, what they associate the Nation Brand with and drivers of decision-making to invest.

We also follow the Nation Brand Index, WEF GCI, Bloom Consulting, Edelman Trust, Mo Ibrahim African Governance Index. Together these provide a glimpse of how the world sees South Africa.

This October you are hosting a conference on Brand South Africa. Briefly, what is the purpose and what would be the ideal outcomes from the forum?

As the official custodian of South Africa’s Nation Brand it remains our responsibility to champion issues relating to the brand identity, brand positioning and brand reputation. The inauguration of the Nation Brand Forum was in 2016 with an objective of identifying different ways that can be utilized to position South Africa’s nation brand as a globally competitive destination.

This programme is spearheaded by Brand South Africa with an objective of promoting a cohesive approach when marketing South Africa internationally. It is attended by a range of stakeholders, including government, media, academics, civil society and business.

In the past we have had themes such as the role of country of origin in enhancing the country’s reputation, inspiring excellence in sports, creative arts and film. This year’s theme is reviving the Nation Brand’s identity and narrative.

Hosting this forum has resulted in collaborations with various sporting federations, as we partake in different sports tournaments. It also resulted in successful collaborations with the film industry, where Brand South Africa is at the centre in celebrating SA film talent, such as the Sew the winter into my skin film which was screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Outcomes are often infused into the nation brand marketing and communication strategy, to ensure that we exhaust all available avenues and opportunities when communicating and marketing our nation brand.

The South Africa Nation Brand Forum is about stakeholders rallying behind a common agenda: the agenda of showing the world that South Africa is a competent and competitive country that oozes with inspiration.

How do you engage your citizens and businesses, to make sure their actions and stories align with Brand South Africa – and the other way around?

South Africa is such a diverse country and it is often challenging to achieve alignment, especially amongst stakeholders. If we are to create a Nation Brand that inspires our people we have to showcase what inspiration means, so others are able to join us and share their stories.

We have a number of programmes in place to encourage alignment with the Nation Brand. Our approach has been to achieve “mastery” with few but impactful and influential stakeholders that are carriers of the Nation Brand.

Over and above the Nation Brand Forum we have a Brand South Africa masterclass that encourages every citizen travelling abroad to be a good brand ambassador. In this class we go through the nation brand positioning, messaging, reputation and issues of competitiveness.

We also have the Play Your Part and Global South Africa (GSA’s ) programmes that promote active citizenry as well as nation brand pride. Over the years we have seen significant impact and influence through these programmes and they are exclusive to Brand South Africa Inc.

Thank you, Sithembile.

Connect with Sithembile Ntombela on LinkedIn


Our interview with Sithembile Ntombela is part of a special series in collaboration with the 2019 South Africa Brand Forum, organized by Brand South Africa, the official custodian of South Africa’s nation brand.

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