Colin Charles: The biggest mistake Western advertisers make in Africa

The executive creative director of Publicis West Africa tells us how he goes about making ads for Ghanaian audiences.

Colin Charles is the go-to guy if you want to revamp your brand’s communications strategy to enter emerging African markets with confidence. His approach to creating ads is straightforward: understand the people that you’re talking to. 

“The biggest mistake that Western advertisers make is to imagine that African audiences are very simple – that they need a very simple message and take things literally,” says the executive creative director of Publicis West Africa. He points out that the same formulaic approaches used in the West will not suit a West African country because of the vast differences in language and visual communication.

The point of departure for his hugely successful Key Soap campaign for Ghana was rejecting the typical approach of soap ads, particularly the kind that portray “two ladies up to their elbows in foam”. Charles used focus group research to identify and exploit the special place that the brand already held in the Ghanaian popular imagination.

Consumers described the soap as a “dependable partner”, an association Charles played on in the ad. But he adds a tongue-in-cheek ending, rather than relying on the basic feel-good recognition that he considers to be condescending. By adding a subversive twist to a familiar scheme inhabited by familiar characters, a stronger, more authentic connection is forged with viewers, who recognise themselves or what they aspire to be.

The concept of “emotional aspiration” is key to Charles' work, as he often illustrates associated feelings for a brand rather than direct product information. This is clear in his award-winning Club Beer commercials, which dedicate minimal screen time to the product. Rather, he conjures a bittersweet, somewhat ironic, sense of nostalgia and belonging based on a shared understanding of national identity. These great narrative visuals, combined with the slogan “Real Beer, Real People” and an extremely brief product shot, proved to be successful among Ghanaians. Brand growth following the campaign was exponential, so much so that the once-failing beverage is today the nation's favourite beer.