Back in April, Iceland paralysed half the world when one of its volcanoes produced an ash cloud that prevented commercial aircraft from flying. Thousands of people (including me) were horribly inconvenienced, but this wasn’t all bad news for Iceland.
All that magnificent footage of that volcano with the unspellable name will forever more be associated with a little piece of rock in the middle of the north Atlantic. This matters, because in these days of apparently endless choice the biggest threat to brands is lack of differentiation. Every brand blurs into every other, until they all stand for more or less the same thing, which is much the same as standing for nothing. Not so Iceland. Everybody knows now that Iceland stands for Volcanoes, and volcanoes are at least the essence of the majesty of nature.
The same is true of South Africa. The vuvuzela is our volcano. Obviously the vuvuzela has nothing to do with the majesty of nature, but it’s a fantastic device for focusing the attention of the world and directing it somewhere more … useful. Think about it. The greatest crisis we face right now is not widespread corruption, strikes or service-delivery protests. It’s a cheap plastic horn. The international media aren’t paying attention to our chaotic transport arrangements, they’re devoting entire morning’s worth of discussion to the Problem of the Vuvuzela.
(Not everyone hates the vuvuzela. Peter Aspden of the Financial Times wrote: “It is a joyous, life-affirming sound, of a nation entranced in pride and celebration, and expressing it through its own culture.”)
The vuvuzela is everywhere. It’s a global best-seller. YouTube now offers a vuvuzela button on its videos (it looks like a little soccer ball). There’s also a top-selling iPhone app, developed by a Dutch outfit (evil colonialists still benefiting from Africa’s natural resources!). At the end of this year, when the New American Oxford dictionary announces its word of the year, I predict that it will be “vuvuzela”. In fact, it’s probably the biggest cultural phenomenon of the year.
What are the implications for Brand South Africa? Well, the vuvuzela might be unbelievably annoying — but it’s annoying in a way that nobody can take seriously. It’s not a disease or a war. It’s just a plastic horn that produces a plangent and penetrating note in B flat.
So, it’s entirely possible that the vuvuzela is our volcano, without the flight disruptions: annoying, yes, a crisis manufactured by the media, yes, but ultimately a phenomenon that will help South Africa stand out more in a world crowded with messages and pleas for the tourist dollar. Hopefully, along with all the moans about the vuvuzela, people will have seen the images of soccer fans having a great time, the friendliness of the locals, and the unique energy that pulses through this country. As Jannie Momberg, editor of News24, pointed out on Twitter, the world used to associate South Africa with the word “apartheid”. Now it’s “vuvuzela”. A drone in B-flat is now the sound of South Africa. It’s our leitmotif, our national sonic branding device. It’s even easy to spell.
And it’s also worth remembering this: being synonymous with “vuvuzela” beats being synonymous with “crime”.