Rwanda, Angola, Kenya, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo all go to the polls this year. Elections in Africa are a big deal, bigger than they should be. Two things can partly explain this.

First is that democracy is an alien concept in Africa that we are yet to fully grasp it to apply it.What we do is go through the motions of “free and fair” elections that “reflect the will of the people”. African people have no will to be reflected and that brings me to my second point. We come from a history of winner takes all monarchs. So what our infantile “democracies” are doing is actually exchanging one “monarch” for another through elections.

This being a deep-seated cultural issue shall take generations of exposure to the western countries that actually practice democracy for us to see a real change. Since you are literate and can read this, you fall into the category of Africans who shall never see elections as being a big deal in your lifetime.

What does this have to do with brands and business?

Let me tackle this as a cultural issue that affects how we perceive, choose and consume brands. How we approach elections is strangely similar to our relationship with brands.

In Africa, even with new constitutions, we still have a “winner takes it all” mentality. Zimbabwe and Kenya modified this a little with power sharing arrangements but we all know there is nothing like co-leaders in Africa. There is always just one leader and his or her cohorts. This is mirrored in the brandscape when brands take on a leadership position. As consumers, our mentally becomes a bit of a herd mentality and we all gravitate towards the “winner” brand. In this way, the number two and others that follow find the going very tough! Just ask the Airtel or Orange brand.

Connected to the “winner takes all” mentality is the notion that choice is a strange thing. This probably has its origins in the fact that African societies were ruled by monarchs who were all powerful. In other words, they were dictators. In a strange way, we expect our leaders to be dictators, giving us no choice. We also expect little choice among brands. Look at the vehicle market in many countries across Africa. We import most of our vehicles and therefore have the choice of literally all vehicles available in the world. Despite this, we still bring in only a handful of choices. Nobody seems to complain.

Trust takes an interesting place in Africa. Rachel Botsman in a much-heralded TED talk speaks of three ages of trust. First is the local one you experience in the village where everybody knows everybody, institutional trust where we delegate out trust to organizations and now distributed trust where everybody is everybody else’s “referee”. Africa is still largely at the village level of trust – what Rachel refers to as “local”. We must work with institutions but not trust them. We might trust “somebody” in that institution. We are not homogeneous enough to bother with distributed trust.

In elections, we vote for our own. So far it is tribal, but Africa is developing new tribes based on class and with time, mindsets. When it comes to brands, the power of referral is pretty much almighty. We trust the brand because we trust the person referring us to that brand, and it needs to be a person close to us, not a salesman or an advert.

Tread carefully around culture and 2017 promises to be an interesting year across Africa!

Article By Tom Sitati, Partner at Brand Integrated Consulting