College of Human Sciences

Keeping the brand alive in unprecedented times

Prof Charmaine du Plessis

Unisa’s Prof Charmaine du Plessis, of the Department of Communication Science in the College of Human Sciences, delivered an insightful inaugural lecture on 23 June 2021 on the topic "Enacting brand purpose with social media brand communication during a global public health pandemic".

In her opening remarks, Du Plessis recalled that since the end of March 2020, South Africa has been experiencing unprecedented times when it joined the rest of the world to weather a global health pandemic. The pandemic has had a huge impact on various aspects of citizens’ lives such as job security and education. A central question in her lecture was How did South African brands represent the reason for their existence with social media brand communication during the current public health pandemic? 

Du Plessis discussed one of South Africa's largest mobile operators, Vodacom. Its brand purpose is "We connect for the better future", focusing on pillars such as inclusion for all, digital society and the planet. She also looked at emerging themes such as aligning consumer priorities with core brand values, being future focused, and helpful information-sharing for principle-driven solutions and support. Her lecture demonstrated how the mobile operator instinctively used its brand purpose as the foundation for all its offerings and brand communication during the period under review.

The new face of brand loyalty

She remarked: "The insights gained can create value for wider audiences in terms of how brand purpose can assist a brand to stay relevant in consumers’ lives during difficult times. On social media, where large audiences are present, brands could aptly respond to and interact with consumers and build community loyalty."

Du Plessis explained that by aligning consumer priorities with their values, being focused on the future and providing value-driven solutions, Vodacom not only enacted its brand purpose, but also communicated effectively and was authentic.

Du Plessis demonstrated that a purpose-driven brand is not only about promoting core values, creating a social media hashtag, a pledge or viral content, but must inspire by providing comfort, connections and familiar experiences with real actions that improve consumers’ lives and contribute to society. "Consumers," she said, "expect brands to play a meaningful role in their lives by understanding their struggles, needs and aspirations, and to address those issues that matter the most to them. Furthermore, those consumer expectations mattered especially during Covid-19, when consumers had to adjust to a new way of life and a new normal."

A better understanding through research

Du Plessis stated that further research on this topic could gain insight from audiences regarding their consumption of social media brand communications from different purpose-driven brands. "The research could also be expanded to focus on the employees of purpose-driven brands. This will further assist in understanding how brands can enact their purpose by living up to their reason for existence," she said.

"I hope that this lecture contributes to a better understanding of how brand purpose can be enacted with social media brand communication during a pandemic or any other crisis," she said. "During this pandemic, many brands’ purpose was put to the test as they had to activate their reason for being."

Prof du Plessis in her own words

Du Plessis says that being an academic has taught her to pause and reflect on what an issue means, and to embrace new experiences. In the process, she says that she has mastered the art of time management and working under pressure as a family person and academic.

Her research interest lies in brand communication with a focus on content marketing on social media and its brand communication. This interest is influenced by, among others, how ideas work from a practical perspective.

Still maintaining contact with her previous master’s and doctoral students, who are now Unisa alumni, Du Plessis says that she enjoys supervising and mentoring students and continues to offer some advice to them when necessary. She remarks: "I have celebrated each of my students’ successes with them after their difficult journeys, and will continue to do so."

For Du Plessis, academia as a career is very rewarding and highly individualised. "However," she says, "I wish higher education institutions would introduce academic writing as a compulsory module when students enter postgraduate studies."

Understanding the importance of community engagement (CE), among other projects, Du Plessis is involved in the Youth Citizen Action Programme (Y-CAP), which is an interdisciplinary project with members from both Unisa’s Department of Communication Science and Health Studies. She says: "CE has the potential to enrich scholarship and research while also enhancing syllabi, education and knowledge."

"I am focusing on becoming re-rated by the National Research Foundation and to obtain a better rating," she concludes. "I want my work to be recognised and continue to make an impact even after retirement."

* By Khabo Maduna, Communication and Marketing Specialist, College of Human Sciences

Publish date: 2021/06/25