When you arrive in Uganda, you touch down at Entebbe International Airport. The first things you can’t help but notice are the crowded surroundings and moist heat. And while driving to Kampala, the contrast of colorful, shiny, freshly painted shops along the dusty roadside instantly grabbed my attention. International brand logos and taglines covered almost every little shop and shack. There was definitely a clear communication strategy behind those local efforts, and Coca-Cola seemed to have mastered it.
Once back home and intrigued by the stories behind those painted shops and shacks, I started exploring the inevitable controversy at hand. Global brands paint and cover Africa with their colors and logos; with every house and shop becoming a giant advertisement, the walls serving as branded billboards – an effective and very cheap strategy to become part of the local daily life. Shop owners get fresh paint, and the occasional branded merchandise such as cool boxes and bottle openers, while the brands get strategic visibility at no cost.
Some parties see the practice as unethical. Whereas, brands such as Coca-Cola claim that this is the visible part of a much bigger plan that is actually assisting the local communities – helping vendors become more efficient, teaching them skills and selling techniques, promoting entrepreneurship and creating jobs. The painting is done with the owners’ consent and nothing here is illegal.
For all of us in marketing, putting brands at the center of people lives is a goal. The presence of brands on the roadside is ubiquitous around the world (see the recent post on Bay Area billboards), and everywhere it raises ethical questions about the presence of advertising in our lives, the power of brands and the impact of the environment – especially when it’s not controlled and regulated.
Are global brands taking advantage of weak laws and exploiting the local population to repaint Africa in their colors? Or are they supporting local enterprises while minimizing their footprint by not adding billboards to the landscape? You decide.