Brands of all shapes and sizes in South Africa will face some unique challenges in 2008 as previously apathetic consumers discover more about what competition is all about and start playing one brand off against the other in earnest.
Add to this an almost insane determination by a lot of politicians and consumer bodies to take political correctness to altogether new heights and these challenges start becoming a little scary.
Then, toss in the fact that every brand's public mouthpiece - advertising - is both losing credibility and at the same time shooting itself in the foot and scary turns to totally terrifying.
Little more than a decade ago, local and international brands in this country had it easy. The highly regulated SA economy was a fairly Utopian sort of place to grow brands. It was full of monopolies and price protection mechanisms in a society of consumers browbeaten by decades of the apartheid government into not even thinking about complaining about anything.
Then came democracy, deregulation, international competition and most of all, the toyi-toyi, that showed normally reticent and retiring South Africans that it was not only acceptable to complain but that complaining loudly actually got results. Suddenly brands had to start looking inwardly at their relationships with customers and whether they were genuinely delivering value or simply still riding the commercial gravy train.
Brand managers started talking seriously about customer service. The majority confused this with lip service with the result that still today far too many companies seem to think that as long as they have plaques on the wall reading; "We Care" and "The Customer is King" everything would just toddle along swimmingly.
And while most of them are still trying to come to terms with what "The Customer is King" actually entails, over the hills on both flanks come armies of bunny huggers made up of point scoring politicians, civil rights crusaders, consumer bodies and just about every organisation in the country that doesn't represent big business.
They are besieging brands right now, many of them quite rightly calling for truth and transparency in the way corporations do business and particularly in the way they not only present their brands but how they manufacture the products behind the brands in terms of labour practices, components and ingredients.
Again quite rightly, the King 2 Report on Corporate Governance put more pressure on brands to behave themselves.
But unfortunately, as with just about everything else in which human nature indulges itself, one also gets the fanatics among those who devote themselves to protecting the ordinary Joe. And there is nothing more dangerous to a brand than politically correct fanatics.
The legions of do-gooders are growing like Topsy and next in line is the liquor industry. And as sure as night follows day, the next decade is going to see massive lobbies pressuring for advertising bans on everything from dairy products, fast cars, absolutely anything sold to children under the age of 16, cellphones, OTC medicines, fast food and any other product that can remotely be considered a danger to our health or well being.
Society is being pressured into trying to make government take responsibility for what parents should be doing.
Brand managers will be faced with trying to promote products without the benefit of advertising. A difficult and expensive task that will see some brands disappear and others increase in price as volumes drop or more expensive promotional methods employed.
Now, if all that wasn't enough, classical, mass market advertising is fast losing credibility. On one hand the consumer is being so swamped with advertising messages that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get attention let alone hold it for any length of time.
Already one can see on TV soap operas how subtle and sometime blatant product placement is growing and the reason for this is simply that brand managers are looking for more effective ways of promoting their products than spending a fortune producing a commercial only to find that every time it comes on, the world and his master is heading for the loo or making a cup of tea.
With the result that a lot of classical advertising is becoming somewhat hysterical in an effort to get attention.
Some time ago now, advertising researchers, Millward Brown Impact claimed that 20 per cent of all advertising was not only ineffective but actually damaged the brand.
Something to think about next time someone naively suggests that "all advertising is good advertising..."