Keeping up appearances
The old adage “perception is reality” has always resonated with me. Being a South African living in England for the past decade, I’ve always been aware of people’s perception of me, where I come from and consequently how I present myself.
The outside perception of South Africa is that it’s pretty dangerous. Everything you see in the media revolves around politics, violence and crime. When I first arrived in England 10 years ago people would tell me I couldn’t be South African because I’m white. It might sound ridiculous, but you didn’t typically see white South Africans on TV – so for many, they didn’t exist. Now, the recent Oscar Pistorius trial has shown that there are (of course) white South Africans, but it hasn’t exactly helped change the view that South Africa is a dangerous country…
Despite this, South Africa remains close to my heart. My reality was different. I grew up with long, sandy beaches, a warm climate – it was beautiful. I would go surfing every day before school. And every year my family and I would take a trip to Kruger National Park. People dream of going on a safari holiday, but for us it was right on our doorstep. There’s a disconnect between the way people see South Africa and the reality of experiencing life there.
I may have left the country, but South Africa continues to play an important role in my life – and my identity. And I want it to be the same for my daughter. Though she’s British, when Olivia grows up I want her to appreciate her roots and have them influence how she sees and presents herself.
Identity is also a fundamental element of “branding”, and it got me thinking about the brands I buy and have relationships with thanks to the way I perceive them.
What is a brand?
When I was younger, I thought a brand was just a logo. Of course, now I know it’s much more than that. Brands are defined by a whole host of elements, from customer service and employee behaviour to advertising and physical products. Combined, these factors form the “customer experience” – and that influences my opinion of any brand.
A company’s reputation also shapes my buying habits. For example, my wife and I needed a new car after Olivia was born. Safety and security were (of course) top priorities for us; they go hand in hand with quality.
I eventually chose Mercedes. As a brand, it ticks all the boxes and, crucially, the aspirational element sealed the deal. Mercedes is eighth in Interbrand’s top 100 global brand rankings; it’s the second-highest automotive firm behind Toyota and one place ahead of high-end rival BMW. The reality is that when you look objectively at Mercedes and BMW, they are both on par in terms of safety. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) ranked both brands highest in recent crash studies. But the prestige associated with Mercedes swung it for me.
My perception of quality drives all my relationships with brands. I am a long-standing Apple customer and own a MacBook and iPhone. I like the company’s passion for design and its production values. For example, using metal instead of plastic for the iPhone’s casing makes the device appear more high-end than rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S5, even if both smartphones have the same functionality. Mass production is often achieved at the expense of quality and that’s why I’m happy to spend more money with a brand I feel puts an emphasis on ensuring its products are well-designed and durable. Though as my colleague Naz points out, that perception might be at odds with reality.
Buying into a brand doesn’t necessarily mean I become an overt advocate of it. For example, I like to buy clothing from specific brands, but not because I want to flash the logo – because the shirts and jeans fit me better.
The level of service a brand offers is also important to me. We had a flat tyre within a week of buying our Mercedes (thanks to an upturned key on the motorway), but we bought cover with the car and the company came out to us and replaced the flat straight away. Now, if my wife is driving with our daughter in the car and I’m not there, I can rest assured that they’re in safe hands with assistance at their fingertips if they need it. A company’s employees are the brand when interacting with customers – they are helping mould the customer experience.
Factoring in all these elements, I think brands have a responsibility to be honest and to present the best and most accurate version of themselves. And they should do it through the strength and value of their products or services. Because when we buy into brands, we expect them to help us present the best and most accurate version of ourselves.