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Updated 29 Feb 2020

Blazing a branding trail through Africa

Thebe Ikalafeng has always marched to the beat of his own drum, chasing the things that excited him most.

Juliet Pitman, Entrepreneur, 17 March 2016  Share  0 comments  Print

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This has frequently meant he’s done things unconventionally, which meant he would often clash with those who followed the status quo (particularly bosses) and tried to squeeze him into a particular mould.

Consequently, when he set out to start Brand Leadership Group a decade ago, he never chased billings but personally rewarding assignments that paved the way for the company to engage in really interesting work.

Related: How Dlala Nje is encouraging a redefinition of workplace roles

The continent’s authority on all things branding, Ikalafeng, who was recently named one of the 100 Most Influential Africans by the respected London-based pan-African magazine, New African, is as passionate about mentoring young up-and-coming entrepreneurs as he is about playing an active role in changing the narrative about Africa — “helping Africa re-imagine itself through branding” through his Brand Africa initiative.

When Ikalafeng is not running a branding empire, lecturing on the latest branding trends or penning an opinion piece for leading publications, you’re likely to find him having coffee and chatting to a young South African who’s looking for direction and advice.

He understands first-hand the challenge young people face in trying to find their niche in the world of business. It’s hard to think of him as anything other than a marketing guru, ‘Mr Brand,’ as he’s often described, he started out with ambitions of becoming an accountant — until he found his passion in marketing.

“The biggest conflict in work comes when the things you do are different to the things you believe in, I try to impress this on the people who come to me for advice,” he says.

Find your passion and it will lead you to your purpose, is the other thing he tells them and if his own career is anything to go by, it’s advice worth taking.

“When I started Brand Leadership I told myself that one day I wanted to look back on our work and be able to say that we had an impact on shaping how Africa and its brands and institutions — and our story — is presented at home and globally,” he explains.

Driven by this vision, he helped Brand Leadership work on the most high profile transformational assignments in the South African brand and pushed the company’s frontiers into the rest of Africa, including successful political branding in Ghana and helping to shape the face of respected and admired brands in Kenya, Namibia, Zambia and Botswana, to name a few. 

Related: Overcoming the rocky start of Rocking the Daisies

Top lessons for carving your niche

  1. Be yourself — everybody else is taken.
  2. You can’t fake passion. Find yours and it will lead you to your purpose.
  3. To work in the rest of Africa you must learn to listen, understand the local culture and leave your country behind. Local people know their country, their business and their customers far better than you ever could.
  4. Don’t be afraid to change direction if you feel you’re on a career path that’s wrong for you. You’re never too old to start again in the right direction.
  5. Follow what interests you and the money will follow you.
  6. Business partnerships work best when you surround yourself with people who have complementary skills to your own.
  7. Remember that your work is your indelible and inimitable signature and legacy. 

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Juliet Pitman, Entrepreneur

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