ANC take heed: even big brands die if they abandon their founding values

ANC supporters cheer during their party’s final election rally in Soweto, May 4, 2014. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

In 1994 the idea that the African National Congress (ANC) might lose power in South Africa was unthinkable. Now, with elections approaching in 2019, the party is on the ropes. It’s a classic tale of a strong brand that has been allowed to denature, thanks to a string of scandals and the inability to deliver basic services consistently.

The question is, can it be saved?

Lessons learnt from the business world suggest that faltering brands can be saved if they address what is killing them.

Strategy consultant Thabang Motsohi argues that when sales and profits decline in a business – read when votes decline in politics– it means that the brand has started to erode and the faith that it’s adherents have is waning. Rebuilding it can be challenging and disruptive. And this assumes the managers of the brand have realised that they are failing their support base.

To start, the problems that caused the decline must first be recognised and fixed before the brand rebuilding can resume. Some brands literally disappear from history through bad strategic judgements that lead to self destruction.

Brand management theory and strategy emphasises two fundamental transgressions that can lead to the demise of a brand: violating the brand promise and jettisoning the values that are important to the brand and its supporters.

The ANC had developed into a powerful brand over its 104 year history in a way that inspired devotion among its followers that has bordered on the religious.

But Africa’s best known liberation movement is in trouble. For the first time since 1994, the ANC faces the risk of losing power.

In business, and in politics, brands can disappear irrespective of how strong they might have been at a particular time. The same is true of the ANC. Despite President Jacob Zuma’s claim that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes, the party runs the risk of imploding if it doesn’t recognise it’s problems and re-invents itself.

ANC loses its way

The handling of scandals by ANC leaders to date has not been reassuring. Its promise of freedom, peace and a better life for all, as well as a future of hope and democracy, is being violated by a growing list of misdemeanours. They include the Nkandla debacle and serious allegations that the president, his family and allies, are benefiting from dubious deals with the Gupta family.

The fact that the economy is in recession, the ranks of the jobless are growing and that investors are giving South Africa a wide berth because of cronyism, uncertainty and corruption mean that the ANC is seen as unable to govern with integrity and competence.

Some within the ANC are aware of the fact that the party has lost its way. The resistance to a Zuma way is growing. Examples include comments by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC member of parliament Makhosi Khoza. With more senior party members speaking openly about the shortcomings of the organisation, there is a glimmer of hope that the brand can be saved.

Johnny Johnson, a brand and communications strategist, argues that everyone in an organisation needs to live up to the brand promise. But, he says, an organisation’s leaders are responsible for looking after the brand and making sure it has integrity. This may even be their most important role.

Jettisoning the values

Taking from the Freedom Charter, the ANC preaches equality, prosperity and security. It says that its core values are to build a country that’s united and based on principles of non-racialism, non-sexism and that’s democratic and prosperous.

But the ANC has stopped living up to these values. Service delivery is chequered, tenders are going to connected family and friends, laws are openly flouted, the elite governing class are disconnected from real life, pockets are being lined and paranoia rules. It’s like an amplified version of a restaurant that now only caters for it’s own staff and treats paying customers with disdain. And then seizes the owners shareholding and gives it to the head waiter and his friends.

To fix its brand, the ANC needs moral guardians who will enforce and promote the party’s core values. Maybe then it can live up to the trust placed in it by its great leaders of the past and the country.

What can the ANC do?

Opposition parties are waiting in the wings to capitalise on the ANC’s weaknesses. So, what can the party do to stave off this challenge?

A good place to start would be honest self searching and a realisation that the party needs to serve the country and not itself. Perhaps a good old fashioned “SWOT” (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis might help the situation. It must clearly identify, among other things, the party’s core values, strengths that it can build on and the weaknesses that have led to its current state. And then to decide if it is a party that puts the country and all it’s people first, or if it caters only to one target audience and doesn’t care about alienating others.

An honest self appraisal and resistance to special interest factions is key to an analysis that informs future strategies of re-building or re-positioning the ANC brand. One of the few strengths of the party is the fact that it has been in government for a very long time and has done quite a lot of good.

It should look to highlight some of these achievements while reiterating and acting on the noble ambitions of 1994. It has to put able and honest people in positions of influence, not compliant and greedy cadres whose self interest is a deterrent to economic stability, growth, opportunity creation and non-discrimination. The brand promise needs to become the brand reality.

The ANC also has an opportunity to renew itself by promoting a new breed of uncorrupted young leaders, and taking strong action against those seen to be tarnishing the brand or playing to the tune of an alternate or captured state. Thus far, the party has failed to take this opportunity with all the enthusiasm and purpose that it is capable of, and regrettably seems unlikely to do so. This brand is in trouble.

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