Profile: Anitha Soni

The unveiling of a new brand image for South Africa represents an important step in the development of the young democracy, and signals the growing political and economic influence it now wields. Clare Dowdy talks to the marketing strategist behind it

Anitha Soni is very much steeped in the vocabulary of strategy. Her language is littered with phrases such as ’informing the process’, ’interfacing with the audience’, and ’entrenching the brand’. But then Soni herself is steeped in strategy. She’s a strategist in the tourism arena, focusing on what she calls destination development. She’s chief executive of South Africa tourism organisation ASA Tourism Services Group, and holds a host of senior positions nationally and beyond in the tourism sector, having started her career as a hotel management graduate in 1978. But it is as chairwoman of South Africa’s International Marketing Council that she is currently applying all this marketing speak.

She has overseen the creation of the republic’s new identity, which is going by the name of Brand South Africa, and which had its international launch in London in the first week of March. The IMC, which was formed in 2002 to create a ’brand image’ for South Africa, seems to have taken its time, but then Soni and various others were only appointed to the board in November 2009.

This is the logo behind which the nation, along with its trade, investment and tourism interests, will unite, Soni says. And South Africa’s hosting of football’s Fifa World Cup this June will be the marque’s first major outing.

This identity, created by South African branding and advertising agency Grid – whose clients include Converse and Virgin Mobile – sees the republic move on to another level of branding. As Soni puts it, ’After 1994, post-democracy, there were a lot [of identities commissioned by the public sector and individual cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg]. At that time we came up with the national flag. As we moved on, with the opportunity that 2010 presents, we sought to refine, review or reinvent [our image] depending on market feedback. That informed the process that was undertaken.’ So rather than taking one existing logo and redesigning it, she says, ’We looked at pulling together all the logos.’
The IMC had a very strong platform to start from, she says, ’because the flag was accepted by the majority of South Africans, and that’s what informed the redesign. Though we didn’t know it would be the flag’.

She describes Grid’s logo as ’in essence the elements reflected in the flag’. As for the typeface, ’We didn’t want it to be too rigid. Here is a nation which is passionate and relates to people,’ she says. Hence the clear and uncrowded lettering, which is intended to allow the brand to be applied to banners, billboards and marketing collateral ’without there being difficulty in its manifestations’, says Soni in her corporate vernacular.

Soni doesn’t take direct credit for managing the brand’s creation, admitting that she’s ’not necessarily the brand professional, I’m the strategic chair, appointed by President Jacob Zuma’. Rather, she says, the credit should go to the collective efforts of the IMC team.

While hosting the Fifa World Cup is a great profile opportunity for the country, the logo wasn’t designed for such short-term ends. ’We want to focus on getting this brand entrenched,’ Soni explains, ’How long it lasts depends on market forces, on how the market reacts. We’d like to keep it as long as possible, but should the market indicate otherwise we will revisit the brand.’

Without making a direct comparison, she suggests that India’s success with its Incredible India marque, incorporating an exclamation mark in place of the ’I’ for India, would be something to emulate. ’Incredible India has done a lot for the country. It’s a demonstration of how a brand can be,’ she says.

And as for Soni herself, the launch of Brand South Africa is something of a milestone in her own career. It’s a highlight, she says, because she’s been involved with seeing the country settle politically and strategically, ’and now to see the brand evolve, we’re maturing, we’re a young democracy’.

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