Africa is the “New Branding Frontier”

By Onome Amawhe

Gary Harwood’s’ voice is very loud and clear throughout Africa’s world of branding and design. As one of the leading advocates for the role of branding and design in the beneficiation of the Africa’s raw materials, he has helped to redefine the craft of branding and design and is very well known as one of  the founders of HKLM, Africa’s leading brand agency with representation in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Botswana and Swaziland. In the competitive industry of  branding and design, where it can be difficult to establish a name brand, HKLM have managed to cut through the clutter and gain international prestige. Their roster of clients, impressive portfolio of work, prominence in local markets and international reach have  indeed made them the major branding and design agency on the continent. HKLM was berthed in 2003 and is run by four partners-all of whom are leaders in the branding and design industry.  HKLM sits on the spectrum of the African continent (the world’s most exciting and challenging market)  concentrating on building  mega brands. The agency  is constantly interested in projects that presents significant challenge, somewhere where it can really make a difference. In their own words, they succintly assert: “If you can build a brand in Africa, you can build a brand anywhere in the world”.

What is your background, and when/how did you decide to start HKLM?

I studied Information Design in Johannesburg and landed up working for South Africa’s most prominent branding and design agency at the time called Pentagraph. That company was subsequently bought by a big international branding and design agency called Enterprise IG. By that time we were working across Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Australia. I was Executive Creative Director of Enterprise IG Africa and Middle East.Fifteen years ago my colleague Dr Sean McCoy and myself were working on a project in Nigeria and after a taxing day were relaxing at the bar at the Eko Hotels on Victoria Island.  As the Star beers slipped away one thing led to another and we got talking about starting our own Branding and Design agency that would focus specifically on building brands in Africa – and that is how HKLM was born.

What does HKLM mean?

Sean and I invited two fellow directors who were working with us at Enterprise IG at the time to join us. Paul Kirsten is an Accountant and Graham Leigh is an Architect. In the beginning we had no clients but all of us were fairly well known in the industry so we named the company after ourselves -–Harwood, Kirsten, Leigh, McCoy. We came up with the tag line ‘New Brand Thinking’ and we therefore used a ‘thought bubble’ as our logo with the acronym ‘HKLM’ inside the thought bubble. The intention was always to drop the full name ‘Harwood, Kirsten, Leigh, McCoy’ once we were up and running and when the company had built up its own reputation.Color is a vital part of a brand and we selected orange as the HKLM colour. It was unique in our industry at the time and it signified a bright optimistic future and positive energy.

What is the branding and design (B&D) process like at HKLM?

We have developed a process called ‘Brand Advantage’. This process revolves around three key stages and we use this process for each and every project no matter how big or small. The three stages are Strategy, Creativity and Implementation. We see many projects where the Creativity was beautiful and everything was meticulously implemented – however the strategy was ill considered and the end result was not optimal and money was wasted. Skip out one of the three steps and you are bound to fail.

How do you work through big problems using the craft of B&D thinking to create a solution for clients?

We follow our Brand Advantage process and we begin with brainstorming sessions. In these sessions we bring in a very diverse mix of people. Diverse disciplines like designers, strategists, architects and digital guys. We also ensure a mix of age, race and gender – juniors and seniors. In these sessions everyone has their say and no one is wrong. These highly diverse multi-disciplinary sessions produce a starling array of incredible ideas. These ideas are then filtered by a much smaller team – usually the Creative Director and the Head of Strategy. This refined set of ideas is then worked on and fine-tuned before sharing them with our client. The interaction with all of our clients is very interactive and many solutions are often co created between HKLM and our clients.

South Africa has a very rich history with B&D, what does being based there contribute to HKLM’s work aesthetic?

South Africa has some very good branding and design schools and universities and we are fortunate to therefore have a constant stream of talented youngsters coming into the industry. HKLM encourages students to do internships with us and we have subsequently employed many of those interns. South Africa is also a very diverse multi-cultural environment which positions South Africans well in terms of being able to deliver Branding & Design solutions across our incredibly diverse continent.

Branding and design seem to be in a phase where people are more aware of it and even celebrating it.  So, looking to the future. What’s the next step for design?

I really do believe that Africa is the ‘New Branding Frontier’. Branding and design is going to play a massive role in helping Africa reach its full economic potential. Branding and design is going to play a massive role in beneficiation of Africa’s raw materials. Africans are the most creative people on the planet and as we see that energy channelled into meaningful projects we are going to experience massive change.

Who are some of the clients you’ve worked with?

We work with a vast array of clients in many industry sectors and countries. An example of some of our clients are: Glo, Conoil, FCMB, Eunicel and Natures Gentle Touch in Nigeria. Anglo American, Nedbank, Exxaro, University of Johannesburg and Internet Solutions in South Africa. Mcel, Hydra CahoraBassa and Karingani in Mozambique. Singita in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Bank of Abyssinia in Ethiopia.Gamma Civic and Mauritius Union in Mauritius.Roche in Switzerland

What are you most proud of in recent years in terms of work?

Each project is unique and each project has aspects that make us very proud. An example would be assisting Singita in positioning itself as Africa’s foremost conservation company rather than just a luxury safari company. Another example would be assisting in the creation of the Glo brand and helping position Glo as a proudly Nigerian company that celebrates and supports Nigerian culture, sport and the arts

Getting to work on the GLO brand is quite a gig. How did you end up helping Dr. Mike Adenuga to design the logo for his telecoms company, GLO?

Dr Adenuga sent a delegation to South Africa to find a branding and design agency to assist with the branding and design of his new telecommunications company. The delegation found us and invited us to come up to Nigeria to meet with him and the rest they say is history.

What aspect of working with GLO has impressed you the most?

The incredibly fast pace at which everything moves and the boldness and courage of the brand to innovate and try new things.

What were the elements that were important to you to convey on that job?

At the time  Glo was the only wholly owned Nigerian telecommunications company and it was important to communicate this in all that we did and position Glo as a proudly Nigerian company. From representing Nigeria’s green and white National colours in the logo to the use of Nigerian ambassadors in all of its communication.

You are also known to produce a variety of design work for Dr.Adenuga. How design savvy is he?

He is extremely design savvy and challenging, he knows what he wants and he always pushes us to go the extra mile.

Ok now, spill the beans: What’s it like having Dr. Mike Adenuga  as a client?

It’s fantastic. He keeps us on our toes and is a true inspiration to work with. His energy is infectious.

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