Understanding ‘Customer and Markets’ with special insights from Widdey Nsona, Senior Brand Manager, Groupe Castel, Malawi

Written by Postar Chikaoneka – Project Catalyst, GrowthAfrica Malawi

Widdey Nsona is Senior Brand Manager for Groupe Castel in Malawi and for one to understand the daily battle that he wields for customers in his market(s) we need to take a step back and provide some context for the battlefield that is the alcoholic beverages sector in Malawi.

Understanding the history of breweries in Malawi

It is said that Carlsberg’s first brewery outside of Europe was built in Malawi and this was done with a strong foundation. The result was (or is) a brand that became an intrinsic and mystical mix of national (Malawian) pride, identity and sociality. Over the years, the brand has offered a range of alcoholic beverages focusing mostly on beer and a handful of spirits.

A few years ago, Carlsberg was acquired by Groupe Castel, a French giant that globally is renowned for the manufacture and distribution of wine. As can be expected, given the intimate relationship that Malawians had with Carlsberg, consumers were initially not sure what to make of it. Many brands the world over have come face-to-face with this challenge: how do we re-brand or re-position ourselves, even at corporate identity level, without alienating our consumers?

Change, when a brand has that rich a history, it is difficult for consumers to digest and almost naturally they tend to seek answers in the intrinsic which more often than not for consumable products culminates in: “it tastes different”. Castel’s Carlsberg Green, the most popular of the three flagship beer offerings in Malawi, overnight started “tasting different” and it started making consumers feel different.

To compound the issue, it is an unfortunate reality that an overwhelming majority of the premium, imported (historically South African brewed and bottled) beers find their ways on to the Malawian shelves and bars through informal means and this meant that a battle that was being won through heart and heritage by Carlsberg was now being opened up to a complex competitor. Finally, Castel added a Castel beer and Boost (a cider) to its portfolio to be able to compete across the board. The results are interesting and ongoing.

 Who is your target market?

The point of this lengthy introduction is to contextualise the wealth of practical knowledge and experience that our speaker at a Growth Accelerator Malawi workshop (Gap Lab) on “Customer and Markets” has built up and effectively imparted to the current group (cohort) of entrepreneurs that are on their way to having their businesses accelerated over a 12-month period.

Widdey’s opening advice was for our entrepreneurs to take a sober look at their markets by weighing up various components of the internal and external environments that affect them. At the core of this ongoing and painstaking exercise is the goal of extrapolating the identified customers’ underlying needs and connecting how that has the potential to impact their ventures.

Mr. Widdey Nsona, Senior Brand Manager, Groupe Castel, Malawi speaking at the Customer and Markets Gap Lab

A valuable mindset unlocking key during this process is the ability to understand that threats CAN become opportunities and it is up to the entrepreneur to understand the alchemy by being invested in the chemistry of the interaction between the customer and the market. It is almost impossible to accurately and intentionally deliver on the desired attributes of one’s product/service if the underlying needs of the customer are not meaningfully understood.

In many ways, entrepreneurs or start-ups are led astray by the lack of validation of what they assume to be their target market and as such do not always make informed decisions – on extremely limited budgets. Part of the secret to overcoming this growth barrier is to take the time to create strategic channels or consumer touch-points whereby one can tune into the frequency of the customers and when their language is learnt, communication can be tailored to them for higher resonance.

The return-on-investment on this is ideally consistency in delivery through consistent product/service attributes which if executed truthfully and with an open mind, position one for growth in sales.

What is your value proposition?

On a strategic level, the combination of the insights gained from listening to customers and really understanding their underlying needs, to refine a product/service in order to ensure that it addresses an existing gap/opportunity/problem comes to life in what we know as a value proposition.

Many entrepreneurs struggle to formulate and articulate their product/service’s value proposition because they focus more on what they think they should be doing in contrast to being customer centric. These value propositions are instrumental in that they have the ability to communicate benefits of the product/service to the customer and effectively make the connection between these benefits and the things that customers perceive as valuable in addressing their underlying needs.

Some of the entrepreneurs in the Growth Accelerator cycle 2 during the Customer and Markets Gap Lab

In closing, Widdey challenged the entrepreneurs in the room to plan, prioritise, be proactive and source strategic partnerships – the above all of which work towards ensuring that they identify and spend the right dose of energy on innovative opportunities along their various value chains.

Personal reflection

My personal reflections align with the above shared by Widdey: having worked in ethnographic market research for multi-nationals across Africa and moved on to business development, the glaring reality remains that it is not the size of a business that necessitates an intentional, insightful understanding and validation of the customers and markets that it seeks to serve but rather it is an integral ongoing process of making sure that you are in the right business, doing business with the right people and communicating what your business can do for them based on their needs and in a way that they can understand.

Resources differ across businesses for these activities for various reasons, but the trick is in being able to gauge how best to engage with your customers in a meaningful and sustainable way for your business. In short, when we put our money on unearthing the real “why’s” (underlying needs or motivations) that drive our “who’s” (customers), we open ourselves up as businesses, to being able to unlock great growth potential by translating that into strategic  “what’s” (products and services) and “how’s” (sales and marketing strategies) at the right “when’s” and “where’s” (purchase moments and moods).


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