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A World Cup marketing lesson: You can’t own the flag

If there is one valuable lesson for marketers and advertisers this World Cup season, it lies in the fact that big brands don’t own and drive big emotions: people do. Just take a look around.

I was taking my dog for a walk the other day, just before the kick-off of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when a bakkie full of Bafana-fanatics roared past me, tooting, wavin’ flags, and just generally making “waka waka”.

I knew I had to do something in return, so I shouted the first word that sprang to mind. “Ayoooooobaaaa!” Then, as the bakkie disappeared on the rise, I looked around to make sure no-one had seen me.

The banner headline in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper the next morning was “AYOBA MZANSI!”, which must have pleased cellular operator and official World Cup sponsor MTN, and confused a lot of foreign visitors who could have sworn they’d asked for an English-language paper to be slipped beneath their hotel door.

Then again, I hadn’t heard the word either, until I came across it on Twitter months ago, stripped of context and used in its adjectival form: Ayobaness. I had no idea what it meant. I do now.

It means big yellow hoardings and billboards and posters and adverts all over the place, intended to engender feelings of warmth and fuzziness for the nation-boosting efforts of an official FIFA sponsor (MTN).

Aside from myself, I haven’t heard anyone saying “ayoba” in real life, although I have heard a lot of people saying “gees” (spirit), and that was originally the property, as the ad people like to say, of another official FIFA partner, car-maker Hyundai.

Hyundai’s “Bring the Gees” campaign, manifested by a small hot-air balloon over Sandton, and a giant vuvuzela on an invisible freeway in Cape Town, succeeded in…well, quickly making us forget who was behind it.

Honestly now, who among us would associate true South African gees, the gees of braaivleis, football, and mild-to-sunny skies with a fresh north westerly wind, with a South Korean manufacturer of affordable sedans?

Indeed, if there is a lesson for marketers this World Cup season, it lies in the fact that big brands don’t own and drive big emotions: people do.

The most visible and ubiquitous World Cup brand is not Coke or Visa or Telkom or Castrol or Budweiser or MTN or McDonald’s. It is the six-colour South African national flag with the subliminal vuvuzela in the middle, fluttering from car aerials, socked onto wing-mirrors, draped over balconies, wrapped around trees, painted on buildings, strung over shop portals, waved at intersections, blocking the rear windows of minibus taxis.

How did this happen?

It happened by example, by frenzy, by the convenient availability of ‘Fong Kong’ merchandise on every street corner. It took spark just as things do on the Internet, spontaneously, combustibly, without the backing of a State organ or the trooping of colours by a private sponsor.

True, MINI SA did give the craze a jump-start, by giving away cute mirror-sokkies as a token of support and goodwill, but once again, the ‘gees’ has proved bigger than the brand.

The raising of the Rainbow Flag, many now ragged at the edges from speeding and exposure to the elements, some fallen by the wayside, some stolen from the parking lots, cannot be attributed to a sudden surge in patriotism alone.

Some, surely, fly the flag for the same reason Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong planted their standards on their piece of the earth or moon: to proclaim their presence, at this time, in this place. Some probably fly the flag because of the natural human impulse to accesorise; some, I have been told, because a flag on your aerial increases your chances of getting off with a warning from a Metro Traffic policeman.

But the point is, the flag is the brand, and we, the people, own it. What the Proudly South African campaign has tried to do in the last 10 years – make people feel good about this country, make them feel we’re good enough for the world – the FIFA 2010 World Cup managed to do in a couple of days.

The big lesson here is that you can’t sell pride to people. They have to feel it. And that, if you’ll pardon the expression, is ayoba.

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