Celebrity marketing has fallen out of favour during the pandemic. But when the strategy makes a comeback global brands need to act fast to tap more African influencers to access high-growth markets like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.
NEW YORK, United States — On the cover of a recent issue of the South African edition of Cosmopolitan, actress Pearl Thusi stands tall with the Johannesburg skyline behind her in a black and gold bodysuit by South African designer Gert-Johan Coetzee.
The March issue was the magazine’s first Netflix issue, meaning its pages were dedicated to highlighting the global streaming platform’s presence on the African continent. Thusi, 31, was the perfect cover star.
Before Netflix, Thusi was already an internationally recognised actress. Between 2016 and 2017, she starred in the hit US television show, Quantico, alongside Priyanka Chopra-Jonas. And in 2018, she was cast as the lead in Africa’s first-ever Netflix Original series, Queen Sono, which was released in February of this year and was recently renewed for a second season.
With over three million Instagram followers and a budding international career, Thusi’s sprawling fan base makes her one of the most bankable personalities on the continent. Clearly, it was only a matter of time before a savvy global brand saw the potential value of her influence.
In February 2020, MAC cosmetics launched a collection called MAC X Pearl, featuring Thusi as the face. According to a spokesperson for the upmarket cosmetics brand, the limited-edition collection featured a selection of classic MAC products curated by the actress herself. It also marked the first time the global brand had ever partnered with a South African public figure for a product collaboration.
“MAC’s collaboration with South African pop-culture icon Pearl Thusi was a natural choice,” said Kerry Hochfelden, brand manager of MAC Cosmetics South Africa. Not only does the actress embody the brand’s DNA, she explained, but crucially she offers local relevance — something that affluent consumers on the African continent increasingly demand.
The success of Queen Sono and Netflix’s steady entrance into the continent has been met with great fanfare and over the last two years Netflix has set its sights on breaking ground in the South African, Kenyan, and Nigerian film industries.
If the coronavirus pandemic had not interrupted most brands’ plans on the continent, the timing would have been ideal for more of them to start casting African celebrities and influencers. Nevertheless market experts believe that once recovery begins, brands will need to seriously consider the strategy.
Several famous faces have laid the groundwork. Lupita Nyong’o and other African members of the Black Panther cast reaffirmed the global appeal of actors from the continent. But many of their peers in other high-profile film productions are perfectly suited for ad campaigns and brand ambassador roles that resonate with fashion, beauty and luxury consumers across the continent.
Elsewhere, luxury brands have localised their celebrity marketing strategies by tapping local actors, musicians, entertainers and influencers. While this has been a popular strategy in China and in markets across the Middle East and Latin America, few brands have gone down this route for African markets despite the fact that celebrity marketing is a valuable business lever to pull.
With an average annual growth of around 5.6 percent in the first half of the 2010s, Africa’s luxury retail sector has surpassed expectations. Analysts in a Bloomberg Professional briefing predicted that the regional market would reach $5.2 billion by 2019, but according to a 2019 New Wealth Report by AfrAsia Bank, the sector already generated $6.1 billion in revenue by 2018.
At the start of this year, projections for the continent’s continued growth seemed promising but the public health emergency that is Covid-19 will negatively impact African economies. In terms of the human tragedy, there are already more than 85,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and close to 3,000 deaths on the continent. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s April Africa’s Pulse report found that the virus is likely to drive Sub-Saharan Africa into its first recession in 25 years, with growth potentially falling as low as negative 5.1 percent in 2020.
But with some businesses already planning ahead for 2021 and beyond, the continent’s luxury market could still present an opportunity if it were not so challenging for brands to access affluent consumers there.
With comparatively few standalone luxury stores on the continent, an underdeveloped fashion media landscape and e-commerce platforms facing logistical hurdles, affluent Africans have tended to shop for luxury goods in Europe, Dubai and the US — which means that most global luxury brands have so far failed to establish direct marketing channels with consumers on the continent.
The result — according to several luxury industry leaders working on the continent — is that brands have underinvested in African markets and, when they do, their marketing strategies are often old-fashioned, lackluster or inconsistent. Celebrity marketing is an important piece in the marketing mix for brands to capture the continent’s growth potential, they contend, especially in the context of the current coronavirus crisis which is characterised by travel restrictions and lockdowns.
Why then have so few luxury brands taken advantage of the opportunity so far?
“I think a lot of brands struggle with that [question] from a business standpoint — what’s the best way to enter an unknown market or one that you see has potential but you’re not sure about how to gain success?” said Bozoma Saint John, chief marketing officer at talent agency William Morris Endeavor which is headquartered in Beverly Hills and has offices around the world representing some of the biggest artists in global entertainment.
Saint John, who was born in the US to Ghanaian parents, said the key strategy for luxury brands looking to enter the continent is to make it more than just a pitstop. “You must spend the time understanding the culture and the people before entering the market,” she continued.
Star Power and High Net Worth Individuals
Nollywood, as the Nigerian film industry is popularly known, is often ranked as the second-largest film industry in the world in terms of film output, following India’s Bollywood. According to a 2017 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Nollywood contributed 239 billion naira to the country’s GDP in 2016 and is expected to reach $1 billion in export revenue by 2020. There is a business model waiting to be harnessed matchmaking brands with Nollywood stars that has already been proven long ago by the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between fashion brands and Hollywood stars.