The World: Insider's view - Kenya

Africa is a continent of opportunity, and yet only universally served by radio. To reach individuals and build loyalty, marketers must go back to square one, Chris Harrison says.

Africa is the next market of opportunity. Sir Martin Sorrell has said it, so it must be true. Witness a burgeoning population; rising realisation of the value of natural resources; a transition to more business-friendly governments; and the growth of media and communications options. This represents an opportunity that has been neglected thus far.

Certainly the continent remains the last pitch on the globe where marketers have yet to field their full team of skills. We've had advertising of a sort for more than 50 years; corporate and governmental public relations for about the same time. Yet this has not really managed to engage the emerging consumer.

Even social marketers (probably the biggest investors in communication in Africa over the past decade) admit they have barely scratched the surface. So, how can marketers help unfold Africa's opportunities?

Historically, radio has been the most powerful medium in Africa. The chosen medium of the dictator, there is scarcely a household on the continent without one. But coverage is not the lesson we should learn from its success. It is intimacy.

Radio was the first one-on-one medium African consumers were exposed to. It carried educational content for both children and adults. Gradually, radio allowed the discussion of matters that were traditionally closed. The medium built the first consumer brands in Africa. It made the listener feel like an individual with its personal tone and audience-interaction offerings.

Africa gives us a chance to leapfrog traditional phases of market development. Mobile telephony and internet access have radically changed behaviours, and marketers must also be ready to accelerate changes in approach. The area of expertise that most interests Young & Rubicam Brands in Africa is direct marketing. Executed well, it can create the kind of intimacy radio does, and more. To people previously regarded as a faceless mass, it offers individual acknowledgement.

The challenges of Africa also create opportunities for us to "do it better this time around". With such low access to postal services, we would require a perverse effort to create a junk-mail culture! More appropriate will be events and brand experiences - underpinned by brand advertising and PR. But such activities will have little value unless matched by an effort to solicit the consumer response. As the father of direct marketing, Lester Wunderman, insists: "Customers must be acquired with the intent to keep."

So, as competition grows, gaining direct marketing skills will make all the difference in developing consumer franchises in Africa. This approach will require businesses, aid agencies and even governments to develop an interest in Africans as individuals. Now, that will be progress.

- Chris Harrison is the Africa chairman of Young & Rubicam Brands based in Nairobi.