EFF leader Julius Malema, addresses EFF follower at Mehlareng Stadium in Tembisa, during the manifesto launch. Picture: Itumeleng English

Organisations can be defined as feisty underdogs or champions of the people, but which of them will change the face of elections? asks Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - One of the most fascinating people to speak at this year’s Discovery Leadership summit held in Sandton this week was, for me, not the bigger names such as Joseph Stiglitz and Ben Bernanke.

Adam Morgan, an international brand consultant, had my interest piqued towards the end of a great day.

Stiglitz and Bernanke are not just well-known economists, but global icons in their own right. But Morgan, speaking on how “Challenger Brands” can compete against big brands and win, struck a chord.

Morgan spoke about how companies, or, for purposes of this column, organisations generally defined, can do more with less, or mutate from being feisty underdogs to becoming game-changers.

The key thing, he said, was that most organisations should know what they were challenging (or else they had no strategy to speak of) and then decide what narrative they wanted to use to maximise appeal.

He spoke about organisations that could be considered the people’s champions. These are those that pick up the battle on behalf of the people. Like newspapers. Or human rights lawyers.

Morgan also spoke about “deliberate mischief-makers”, the democratisers, the feisty underdogs, the next generation outfits, among others, in what he termed “10 ways to tell a challenger story”.

Certainly, many South Africans will identify the Nando’s marketers as mischiefmakers. And who has noticed their latest Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial-related offering about, uhm, how their Michelle Burger is flame-grilled to perfection?

And the geeks who print those T-shirts about Black Labour, White Guilt – you know who I am talking about – also perfectly fit in this category.

Democratisers are people like SECTION27, Treatment Action Campaign, Black Sash and many others whose motif is utilitarian.

They transmogrify privileges to rights enjoyed by everybody. But the most fascinating was Morgan’s use of the example about how the makers of Mini Cooper challenged the manufacturers of Porsche 911 to a race on a defined road, time and date.

On the surface, Mini Cooper has no right to compare itself to a car like Porsche, Morgan said. But by merely doing so, it made an important statement about itself. Even if Porche had acceded to the race and won, Mini would still have earned kudos. But Porche did not pitch for the race and, expectedly, Mini Cooper makers milked the publicity for what it was worth.

As he kept repeating, companies, or organisations, are either challengers or game-definers. If you are a challenger, what is the narrative that will make sure your brand gains traction? Do you know what – or whose hegemony – you are challenging?

Looking at our country at the cusp of an election 20 years into democracy, Morgan’s analogies are so apt.

Most of us know that the ANC will win. The question is whether or not its support could be brought to under 60 percent or even 55 percent, depending on whether you believe United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa’s claims that there is a plan to rig the elections. But looking at Morgan’s analogies, it is clear there are democratisers, feisty underdogs, mischiefmakers and people’s champions who are feverishly trying to eat away at the ANC’s support base.

The people behind Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, for example, appear to have assumed a few of Morgan’s challenger attributes. They project themselves as the people’s champions because they claim to be the genuine representatives of the wretched of our earth, the underclass who are yet to lay claim to the fruits of liberation, five elections later.

They have also positioned themselves as mischiefmakers, dragging the Independent Electoral Commission to court to argue, in so flippant a manner, that they should be entitled to pay only R200 to register to contest elections and not the R600 000 currently required.

Which ever way the court decides, EFF would have projected itself as a party taking up issues facing those with limited means. They are the underdog going in to fight the big bullies. David versus Goliath.

They, like the Mini Cooper makers, have no right to compare themselves with, say, an organisation as big as the ANC.

But the brains behind EFF, just like the Mini Cooper manufacturers, know that such comparisons can only benefit them or make a big statement about what they are made of. They are, to use Morgan’s words, challenger brands competing against brand leaders. They have the gift of mobility and speed. In the end though, these underdog firms’ campaigns must be pegged on real needs. One can’t merely proclaim to South Africans: I am the people’s champion – and then gain support.

So the question is: why do parties like the EFF, with leaders much-less than ideal, still gain traction? The numbers at its manifesto launch in Thembisa, Ekurhuleni, speak volumes. Is it that the ANC’s narrative as a liberator is losing appeal, or that some people are looking for a new champion of the people? Is it their issues that resonate with the underclass? If so why?

Could this explain why those in the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) feel emboldened to form their workers party away from the Tripartite Alliance? Why is the ANC or other big parties unable to hold on to those finding homes in start-up parties?

The ANC has done well in many respects. A catalogue of these successes is freely available. Its biggest headache though, is that it appears clueless on how to create an economic growth that is, as the National Development Plan promises, sustainable and, of relevance here, inclusive.

Many of those who remain unemployed, without houses, without access to water, access to opportunities to live fulfilling lives will always look to those who create a narrative around themselves as champions of the poor for hope. This is so, even when no one knows how differently the new champions of the poor will do compared to those failing to unchain them from lives of poverty, disease and want.

Will Morgan’s lessons, gleaned from his book Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands can Compete Against Brand Leaders, become more apparent when South Africans go out to vote? How will the time-tested political brands compare to the new challenger brands?

In the book David & Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell revisits the famous story of how a big, slow, slumbering giant suffering from what appears to be Acromegaly comes up against a mobile, youthful attacker to help us look closely at how battles are waged and won by those who, to the naked eye, appear unlikely candidates.

But, like the Mini Cooper story, the small guys win even when they lose because whatever they gain is a gain they did not have. May 7, we await you.

* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

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