Friends & Friction: Plot like a fox, work like an ox

2014-03-13 10:00

Broken. Marred. Weak. This is how one could describe BMW after World War?2. Like many German firms, BMW was guilty of using Jewish slave labourers during the Nazi era who, among other things, manufactured weapons for the Nazis.

As a result, the Quandt family – which still owns a majority stake in BMW – became very rich.

After the war, the patriarch, Günther Quandt, was charged with using slave labour, but was later acquitted. The company’s production facility was bombed by the Allies, making it financially weak.

But BMW is a study in resilience.

It all started with the attitude of management, who preferred to do something imperfectly than nothing perfectly. That they didn’t have a manufacturing facility didn’t stop them from doing business.

Instead, they imported a three-wheel vehicle from Italy and sold it under licence as the BMW Isetta. It was a patriotic vision that moved BMW forward, with Quandt saying: “We’ll build our business by building our country.” The rest is history.

The ABC of fixing a business – indeed a country – is to acknowledge the wrong, build and then communicate. To succeed in business, you must plot like a fox, work like an ox and advertise like a peacock.

Here in South Africa, the next 20 years will offer our businesses an unprecedented opportunity as we make poverty history and erode illiteracy. Businesspeople must be bold in their dreams and remember that politicians do not have a monopoly on thinking big.

Like Germany, the home of BMW, South Africa is home to some of the world’s most prestigious brands.

Go back to the Great Depression and you’ll find South African marketing brilliance at its best. Diamonds had lost their popularity and women wanted their men to spend their money on new washing machines rather than diamond rings. De Beers needed to change that view.

Along with its US-based advertising agency NW Ayer & Son, De Beers set an ambitious goal – to create a situation where every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.

The night before the marketing pitch to De Beers, the woman who worked on the campaign, Frances Gerety, realised she hadn’t come up with a slogan and was too tired to write anything. Like any good Catholic, she prayed before going to bed, except this time, she didn’t use her rosary.

Instead, her prayer was in the form of a telegram that read: “Dear God, send me a line.” In the morning, she wrote: “A diamond is forever.” The line went on to become the slogan of the century.

It’s a pity De Beers does not have a flagship store in South Africa to show pride in the country of its origin. Understandably, such companies were established in a different era and perhaps their view of Africa hasn’t changed.

Their managers still fear that being associated with this country may scare off their investors and appal their customers.

So it’s now up to new pioneers to change the view that all things African are inferior, unsafe and unstable. Why is it that the world believes Germany is a safe bet, even though it started two world wars?

Our new pioneers are unlikely to be found in established companies. They are most probably budding in our townships and villages.

Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency

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