Talking to NextGen Africans

By Reshma Patel, Consultant, Health Division at Meropa Communications, South Africa—

As I walked through the shiny glass doors, wet behind the ears, keen to learn everything there was about building relationships and executing perfect communications, I was ready to take on the world. How do these guys do it? That was the question I wanted answered as a young South African entering a new world.

I went to university, studying the ins and outs of communication and my career had just started at one of South Africa’s leading PR agencies and Minerva Strategies’ regional partner – Meropa Communications.

I settled at my desk on my first day, swelled up inside with anticipation and nervousness. I was surrounded by very experienced people most of whom had worked in the industry for as long as I had been alive. But I was enthusiastic and adamant to do just as I was indoctrinated to do by my lecturers: “Communications in the real world is still very traditional and boring, go out there and change that.”

As the work days went by, I started to realise that communication was not only still very “traditional” but it was a difficult process and not entirely meeting the needs of African youth for authentic, relatable and trusted messages.

Africa is not only a hub for growth and opportunity but it is also emerging as a unique player in global economic and cultural spheres. The youth are entrenched in these spheres, balancing both the new and the old world, holding certain characteristics that are deeply rooted in tradition and culture. I soon learned that being a home-grown company with a continental and international reach was something each of the consultants (affectionately known as Meropians) strove for. After finding this out, I thought: “This must surely be the promised land for youth-centred comms!” But I was wrong.

As the different pieces of content escaped from my desk, I realised that often the messages were not getting through to the people who look, think, talk, dress like me – the youth. And then came the questions: “Why does the African youth market still not resonate with the messaging that we so passionately deliver? Is regularly disseminated information really all they need to connect and interact with us?”

Us, African youth, live in interesting times. We are working hard to forget the ills of our colonial past and make the most of the liberation and independence that our forefathers died for. At same time, we are fighting to put our stake in the ground and to define ourselves. What a mammoth task! We are a remarkably powerful voice because we have our own incredible stories of strife and triumph and we are not afraid to share them boldly in ways that are starkly different from other generations. This is what many brands are struggling to understand. Unlike our parents, we don’t just automatically trust brands. They need to make us feel included and ignite our passions and interests.

My generation is open-minded, forward-thinking and highly connected. We have a thirst to be heard, thrive on personal interaction and appreciate transparency and genuine actions. It is transforming the communication world as we know it and forcing us to reconsider our strategies.

I discovered that brands don’t always get how to engage with us. There are some interesting trends emerging from this market. We are rummaging the digital world from our mobiles to find information that is relevant, authentic and stimulating. We prefer to connect with our peers and favourite brands on social media.

It is not easy to hit a bull’s eye on this partly because we are also very complex but some brands are headed in the right direction by listening to the youth and tailoring their communication strategies to suit them. loveLife is an organization that uses social mobilization and communication strategies to address HIV and other issues facing youth today. It is a good example of how important it is to be malleable as an organization in order to make a meaningful impact. Since its launch in 1999, loveLife has courageously transformed much like a caterpillar to appeal to young people in many ways like simply using our lingo, truncated SMS words and giving us ownership of the brand.

The dynamic youth population is paving the way for a new African Narrative and forming new identities carved by our own passions, aspirations and lifestyle choices.

So what valuable things have I learned since entering the professional world? We as communicators must ask youth what information they want and how they want it. We must trust them to guide us along the communication yellow brick road because nobody can tell their stories better than them. And in retelling their stories – good or bad, we must strive to help them come up with solutions towards progress.

As my journey unfolds, I’m glad to be part of this generation with our unique cultures and values. Most importantly, all brands need to step into the shoes of young Africans. They need to engage and think about what makes us tick. Today’s teenagers and young adults have a voice; they are not afraid to use it and they have the platforms to express their opinions.