Who is Who

Sithembile Ntombela

Sithembile Ntombela is a dedicated Chartered Marketer (SA) with over 20 years of experience in purposeful brand marketing. She excels in implementing successful brand strategies and leading marketing teams, bringing a wealth of expertise in strategic brand management, integrated marketing and communication, advertising, stakeholder relationship management, digital marketing, global marketing, and reputation management.

Currently, as a key figure in promoting South Africa's Nation Brand, Sithembile is responsible for developing and implementing marketing strategies that enhance the country's image both locally and internationally. Her leadership emphasizes growth, excellence, and the human agenda, striving to foster collaborative success and professional development within her teams.

Q&A with Sithembile Ntombela on Brand(ing) South Africa

South Africa offers a compelling example of combining purposeful country branding with a strong national identity. What drives their successful brand strategies, and how do they navigate the complexities of global perceptions? We had the privilege of interviewing Sithembile Ntombela in 2019 (here the interview), as part of our Who is Who series of interviews with place brand impact makers.

In the interview, Sithembile shares her journey into Nation Branding, the importance of South Africa's diverse cultural assets, and the role of strategic initiatives in enhancing the country's global reputation. Read below an excerpt of the original interview.

Sithembile, 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 Mama Esther, who painted the UK and US in IsiNdebele art, to Laduma Ngxokolo, who made Brazilians insane with his IsiXhosa fashion wear.

Of course, I cannot forget musical artists such as Sho Madjozi, who recently won a BET award, and Black Coffee, who are currently taking Spanish music fans by storm. And recently, the Ndlovu Choir from Limpopo made waves as finalists in the America's 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 terms of investment, 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.

In your experience, how has the image of South Africa changed over the last years?

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 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.

Global 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.

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.

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.

Which aspects of your 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

About Brand South Africa

Brand South Africa was established in August 2002 to help create a positive and compelling brand image for South Africa. Its mandate is to develop and implement a proactive marketing and communication strategy for South Africa, promote economic competitiveness, drive trade and investment, and develop pride, patriotism, social cohesion, and active citizenship among South Africans.

Brand South Africa has a number of portals you can use to gather information and learn more about the strategies we have implemented as well as our goals, ideals, and guidelines. If you would like to learn more please visit the following portals.

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