On our second episode, Isco got on IG Live to discuss the pitfalls of being a creative worker in a developing economy where anything outside of the traditional professions (Law, Medicine, Engineering) is taken for granted or looked down upon.
In our first episode, our host Black Isco explores the broken social contract in Malawi
Your brand is the unique quality that distinguishes you from everyone else. It’s the intangible asset used to identify your institution, differentiating you from your competitors and informing your audience on what to expect from interactions with you, your products and services. Simply put: a brand is a promise.
In marketing, branding goes beyond merely advertising your products with your logo. It is deeply linked with the mission of the institution. It’s engrained in the culture of the company. It’s in the skill sets, values and beliefs you instil and promote in your workers. It is the everyday practice of integrating your promise to the customer into your projects, products and systems. It extends to how you answer your phone, reply to emails and dress during sales pitches. Branding is about placing the identity of your institution in its symbols, processes, product names and product designs.
Building a strong brand is a process which often takes years. It is however, a worthwhile process: research conducted by McKinsey & Company indicates that organizations with strong brands outperform the market by 73 percent. Clearly, a strong brand offers you a competitive advantage in the market place. But why is this so?
It has something to do with the fact that if people can recognize a brand after a certain amount of exposure to it, it creates a sense of familiarity that increases the odds of people trying out your products or services. An identifiable brand also increases value for future business and gives you leverage with potential investors. Likewise, if your brand is strong, there’s potential to create new customers based on the experiences and strong recommendations from existing ones. It creates trust within your market, and even promotes pride and satisfaction for workers within the institution by being associated with excellence in the market. So, how do we begin to build a brand?
To start, let’s take a look at one of the most recognizable brands on the planet - Nike. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Nike? For many of you, it’s mostly likely the slogan ‘Just Do It’. Another thing that may quickly spring to mind is your favourite athlete, whether that’s Selena Williams, LeBron James or Tiger Woods. In short, we primarily think of values and icons associated with the Nike brand. The swoosh logo invokes the idea of an ambitious attitude and sporting excellence. The actual products - tennis shoes, sweatbands or golf shirts - are usually secondary thoughts. What Nike has managed to do is associate its brand with the essence of an active and successful lifestyle in the minds of consumers.
This trait is taken to the extreme with another brand under the Nike umbrella – Jordan. In the athletic world, Michael Jordan is the epitome of a winner and many people will pay a premium to own a Jordan brand sneaker, hoodie or backpack. This rarely has anything to do with the aesthetics of the product, and usually has everything to do with the Jumpman logo: consumers – consciously or unconsciously – recognize it as a symbol of peak performance. The Jordan name was built on MJ’s exploits on the court, and yet the brand has managed to capture the imagination of non-athletes because of its association with a championship-winning drive. The ambition to be the best. The true power of a brand is its espoused values. A strong brand becomes a culture: ‘this is who we are and this is how we do things’.
So how was Nike able to develop their brand? The superficial answer would be years of constant and consistent messaging, picking the right athletes to sponsor (minus the odd scandal here and there) and great product design. However, the true key to brand development is in the understanding of three core elements: Identity, Perception and Audience.
I call this the triangle offence of brand development because if you understand how and where to position each of these three key elements – just as in basketball – you create the perfect space for fluid decision making that will get you buckets i.e. reach your market objectives. While I'm probably not the first person to note these three crucial elements of brand development, it may be one of the few times they've been presented in this concise manner. Every strong brand in every industry – whether in the consumer market like Apple, or B2B (Business to Business) like IBM – has developed their brand by understanding this trifecta and using it as the foundation for their marketing strategies. Understanding one or two corners of the triangle might get you off the ground, but never beyond the point of mediocrity in your market. Understanding all three elements or cornerstones of your brand is what will develop a strong brand.
Side note: I want to emphasise the importance of ‘understanding’. It goes beyond simply knowing. Absorbing information becomes knowledge. Using knowledge to guide your actions becomes wisdom. Seeing and feeling the results of your actions or the actions of others becomes understanding. understanding can only come through action. Two children may be warned not to touch a hot stove. The wise child would listen, the unwise child would not. The wise child comes to understand why he shouldn’t touch the stove by seeing the unwise child’s screaming and scarring. The unwise child comes to understand through their own pain. Both children, from then on, approach even a cold stove with new caution. Not all understanding has to be so traumatic though. But we must truly engage and involve ourselves in the learning process to truly understand.
1. Understand who you are
The starting point for your brand is understanding your identity. What are the values and beliefs at the core of your being, and what rituals, practices and symbols reflect them? This is not just what you do or how you do it; your identity is deeply rooted in why you do what you do. From your brand’s identity, you can form a vision on what it is you want to accomplish, where you want to take your brand in the future, and how you want to recreate the world according to your ideals. From your identity and your vision, you can begin to understand what your intention going forward will be. Intent being how you want your actions to affect your customers, your industry and the wider world. Understanding identity, vision and intention are at the core of who you are and will help differentiate your brand from the crowd.
2. Understand who you are to your audience
How you interact with the world plays a key role in your brand development. Let’s take the example of a wedding planner who advertises themselves as ‘quirky’, ‘funky’ and nonconformist to cater to a niche market, yet delivers conventional, vanilla wedding experiences. That brand won’t go very far because it doesn’t deliver on its promise. The same could be said of a Christian rapper who posts videos of themselves smoking weed and drinking on Snapchat and Instagram. How and what you communicate to your audience needs to be aligned with who you are. It’s a common sense approach that we may take for granted, so think about it: How does your brand look to a complete stranger? Does your advertising match your brand’s values? Does your Twitter bio match your Instagram bio? Is there consistency throughout your messaging that would allow potential customers to buy into who you are? To have a strong brand, who you are – or at least who you want to be - needs align with who you are to others.
3. Understand your audience
It’s important to accept that your brand will not appeal to everyone. Even the strongest brands are not universally loved. As popular as Coke, Nike and Apple have become, there will always be people who prefer Pepsi, Adidas or Samsung. Once you understand who you are and understand who you are perceived to be, you can seek out a target market that will resonate with your brand. Understanding your audience means you’ll know which channels to reach them through. You’ll waste precious time and energy (and money of course) posting advertisements for your butchery in vegetarian forums, even if the other elements of your brand development are on point. Identifying your target audience may not be as clear cut as in this example – even a butcher needs to sort out their products, placement and pricing for the demographic they’re catering to based on income, age and location. It is however the final key in developing your brand. Find the tribe that feels your vibe – it’s as simple as that.
On your journey to developing a strong brand, always remember who you are, how you’re perceived and who your audience is. These are the building blocks to successful branding and will inform your branding and marketing practices going forward. Whether you’re a marketing manager of a corporation, the founder of a new startup, an artist or even a graduate in the job market, you’re likely to find more success if you utilize the triangle offence of brand development.
Peace to the world and love to the family! As we enter a new year, I’d like to leave a message of hope and growth for all my people. The world is changing: Rap is now the most popular genre of music, people actually listen to women and minorities, straight white males are (sort of) held accountable for injustices, a Twitter troll is president of the United States…
These are interesting times to be alive. These are culture-defining times and everybody and their Chihuahua claims to “do it for the culture”. As such, I think it’s important for us to understand what culture really is.
Culture, as I understand it, is a set of values and beliefs shared amongst a group of people. Geert Hofstede, the famous Dutch researcher of culture, defined it as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.” From this definition, one word sticks out to me: ‘programming’.
Culture is a multi-layered phenomenon. We can often see what’s on the surface: the architecture, the artwork, the style of dress and other items that make up the symbols and artefacts belonging to a culture. Similarly, we can readily identify the heroes and icons who belong to certain cultures: Nelson Mandela to South Africa; King David to Christians and Jews; Jay Z to Hip Hop. The artefacts and the people who represent the essence of a culture make up the first two and most readily identifiable layers of our cultural paradigm. Beneath the surface, we have the rituals and traditions associated with cultural groupings. The practice of the culture. The greetings that are exchanged, the way we bathe, the way we dine and the meals that are eaten, the prayers that are offered and the songs that are sung are all part of cultural practices. At the centre of our cultural onion are the underlying assumptions and cultural values which influence all the other layers: we paint pictures of landscapes because we value nature; we admire Madiba because we value freedom; we wash our hands before we eat because we value health; we mourn our dead because we value life.
Our cultural norms, beliefs and attitudes may be difficult to pinpoint if we don’t have a deep and thorough understanding of how these layers interact with each other. We must understand that the artefacts we create and treasure are a reflection of our community. We must understand that who we elevate to the status of an icon or leader reflects our cultural values. We must also understand that our leaders have the ability to either reinforce or revolutionise our worldview and way of life. This is the unique dynamic held between leadership and culture: they are two sides of the same coin.
Our espoused values are what we use to validate our actions. These values are programmed into our psyche through consistent practice of a given set of rituals. These rituals are born from the tried and tested solutions to problems that a cultural group has faced. For example, we wash our hands before we eat because the ancestors saw that this prevented the bad spirits from entering our bodies. Today we know that the ‘bad spirits’ come in the form of bacteria. However, the key to preventing ailment remains the same: wash your damn hands before you eat. Similarly, if our response to slight annoyance from another person is to fight, and this response is repeated enough to become habit, and we pass on the habit to others (directly or indirectly) then the response becomes ritual, and it becomes part of the culture. Thus, if we have art or music coming from cultural icons, espousing the value of taking drugs as a ritual, what happens to those who follow them?
Human beings have agency and it may be unfair to suggest that artists have the power to sway their audience or followers into partaking in certain behaviours. After all, art imitates life and it is a reflection of the culture it is created in. But what if the opposite is also true? What if life imitates art? Does an artist then have the moral responsibility to only push those things that are beneficial to society? Today’s music industry tends to push the type of songs that work best in the type of environment where we have youth sipping on lean and strippers twerking on poles. That’s where the money is, and I can’t blame artists for supplying what the buyers demand. But what’s good for the pocket may not be good for the culture.
Again, it’s buyers’ demand which dictates the popular art of today. People tend to ask when music (rap in particular) will become more wholesome. To paraphrase Yasiin Bey, rap will become more wholesome when the people become more wholesome. We live in an individualistic, hedonistic society. Many of us are seeking profit and pleasure for ourselves. We end up having extreme capitalists willing to burn down villages for minerals under the ground, and corrupt government officials stealing funds that were meant to purchase medicines in public hospitals. In my eyes, the human experience is greatest when our whole community is thriving. Is it possible to attain personal delight while also bringing something to the table for the people?
Each goal we strive to achieve affects those around us. That gym membership helps pay for somebody’s seed to go to school. The local tourism you decided to do more of this year will provide a young boost to the economies of the small towns you visit. The gems you drop in your internet article might open up neural pathways in some readers’ brains and elevate their minds to new levels of consciousness. It all adds up: if I do well, I help my brother do well; if my brother does well, he helps others do well. Real talk. Our individual pursuits ultimately contribute to communal welfare. The question is, are your contributions beneficial or detrimental to the community?
As we head into the New Year, I’d like us to remember that we all have people around us who look to us for guidance from time to time. Some of us are leaders in the community. Some of us are leaders in our households. Some of us have the likkle youts looking up to us. We all have the opportunity to programme and reprogramme a set of values into our circle. Be a beacon of light, and do what’s right for the culture. Strive for your dreams, and I hope your dreams light up your society.
I wish you all a prosperous 2018.
It’s All Love.
Some years ago, some time between 2011 and 2013, there was an artist who called himself 'Frankie The One'. He had some pretty decent flows. His voice could carry a melody or harmonize a hook or two. He had some fire bars here and there, and he had enough stamina to put together a couple of full length projects. One of those mixtapes was The Illumination. One of the first full length projects out of Malawi to get over 1,000 downloads. It doesn't sound like much but in 2012, to get those kind of numbers for something over 50MBs in a country where only 1-3% of the population had access to the internet was a damn near Herculean task. Frankie The One went on to perform a few shows in various clubs and college campuses around Malawi, and even did a set on national TV. He even attracted some interest from some of the heavy hitters in the Nigerian music scene. The kid was making a little noise is what I'm saying. And then he disappeared.
We've entered an era of ADHD. The advent of social media and its ability to shift wave after wave of new information means that the average attention span in this digital age is pretty short. For a musician who isn't an established name to go silent for more than 6 months is virtually lethal to their brand. Go quiet for 3 weeks and already you'll have some quarters of the internet discussing how you've fallen off. Frankie The One hasn't put out any new music since 2013. So what happened to him?
Around the time of Frankie's last single, Enigma, I was in my final year of university studying for a Bachelor of Economics degree. I was writing a dissertation investigating whether the Hecksher-Ohlin Theorem on international trade held true for a developing economy such as Malawi (it did). As those of you familiar with the college experience would know, this was also around the time of our final round of exams. It was an understandably stressful period and most of my attention was focused on getting the hell out of school. I have a degree in economics so, yeah, it paid off.
The music business and most other creative/artistic industries in Malawi have proved to be economically unrewarding in the past. Before 2014, you could squeeze water out of a rock with more ease than you could get payment for a gig out of a promoter. Again, unless you were an established act with enough clout to host your own shows, or whose name was big enough to make promoters reach into their pockets, there was a good chance the only thing you'd be offered for your sweat, voice, hours of practice and presence on stage was 'exposure'. 'Hey man, I know you want to get paid in actual money but think about all the exposure you'll get for this performance.' As if you can go to Shoprite for bread and use exposure to pay for it at the till. For a Malawian musician with a relativiely small following and larger opportunities for income in the corporate sector, the decision to put music on hold for a while may seem pretty logical.
Soon after graduating, I started work as a consultant. Things were pretty good. I had a new girlfriend. I had a decent salary. I soon had a nice little car (some may argue that a Toyota Passo is a glorified lawnmower but I put my heart into that street legal go-kart, dammit), and I didn't have to ask my parents for pocket money any more so it seemed like life was moving along as well as it could. I slowly found myself falling out of touch with the music scene. A year later, in 2014, I left Malawi to pursue a masters degree in Management and Finance at the University of Sussex. The buzz around Frankie The One was dying down at this point. Only the most die hard fans of rap were still waiting to hear something new.
2 years later, I came back home, MSc in hand. It was a moment of personal triumph, having pushed myself to a new height as far as academics is concerned, and had developed professionally. But life back home had changed. The economic climate was less optimistic. Old friendships were estranged. On top of that, my girlfriend of three years decided to call it off. My academic and professional success was juxtaposed with uncertainty and personal failure. I felt sadness bordering on depression.
Frankie The One was built on a teenage desire to be the best and nothing else. To be able to construct complex rhyme schemes and deliver clever punchlines and double entendres. The central focus was on what could be said and not necessarily what should be said. These days, the persona of 'The One' strikes me as both arrogant and insecure: one wonders if the statement was an overconfident declaration to others or a chant of encouragement to myself. I forget why I embraced the name.
Frankie The One is dead. The desire to create music is alive again.
Enter: Black Isco. the meaning behind this name is pretty simple. My name is Francisco and I'm black. I have nothing more to prove. I have no one to impress other than myself. I'm here to make music from my heart and my only hope is that it resonates with the hearts of others. But I'm no longer here to prove I'm nice with it. I know I am. My job is translate that into good music. That being said, Lingua Franca the album is currently under development. It's due for release in 2018 and we have a new single coming very soon. I can't wait to begin this new journey and I hope that you're all on board for the ride!
Some of you reading this may remember the blog frankietheone.blogspot.com. I kind of deleted it by accident but from now on this is where you'll be able to read my thoughts. I'm about to sign off in familiar fashion.
P.S. I'll try to post at least once a month and keep things fun for you guys. Thanks for reading.