August, 2016
Changing with the changing face of South African families

Mbali Cindi – Mortimer Harvey, Team Strategy

The Modern Family TV show and the Honey Maid cracker brand ads are two examples of American media and brands addressing a generally overlooked audience by accurately portraying the changing family landscape and creating content that encourages social tolerance and acceptance. In South Africa, we have TV shows like Living the Dream with Somizi, Isibaya and My Perfect Family, which have also explored different family structures.

But is that enough? Are there enough brand ads, TV shows, children’s books and other local content programmes that show the changing South African family in a positive light, and thereby reach the silent potential market that falls outside conventional boundaries?

Families aren’t what they used to be
Over time, family structures have evolved from traditional nuclear families into interracial families, same-sex parented families, single-parent families, extended families, polygamous-parent families, grandparent-headed families, cohabiting partnerships, childless families, child-headed families, orphanages, stepfamilies and so on. Below are some of the statistics describing typical South African family structures.

Despite this diverse modern family make-up, what is most often depicted on our screens is the traditional family, with mom, dad and 2,5 kids, or else the single mom trying to juggle everything on her own with the father being absent, while other family configurations either get little attention or are portrayed in a negative way.

But, what about the women who run orphanages? What about the single dads, stepdads or gay dads who are present and making breakfast, school lunches and dinner, changing nappies and bathing their children every day? There might be a small number of these, but they still exist.

So, why is the truth of South African families not being reflected in popular culture?
I discussed the portrayal of different family structures in the media with some of my peers. Their general feeling was that there was a lack of support for families that didn’t fit the ‘perfect family’ mould, and that time was needed to work out this issue with people who were culturally entrenched.

The common opinion was that the least-represented families were same-sex-parented families, especially in the black community, because of the stigma surrounding them.

They admitted they felt conflicted by modern family forms because of culture, religious beliefs and perceptions. For example, single fathers and stepfathers were viewed negatively because of the increasing number of absent fathers, mixed families because of the race issues in our country, and, lastly, orphanages because people don’t generally consider them to be real families.

However, they considered it important to portray diverse family structures, because it was believed that, as a country, we should show our support for all people, and not just those who are deemed ‘normal’ – and brands that are seen to be upholding this value would be appreciated.

They emphasised that, while the media, brands and local content should reflect our present reality, they also have the power to change, inform and shape our reality positively. Although one might not agree with something, that didn’t change the fact that it existed in society – and brands can help create awareness and understanding in order for us to progress peacefully as a society.

What’s in it for a brand?
It’s important for brands to engage with cultural shifts such as these and position themselves at the forefront of progress, as this presents an opportunity to create deeper bonds or connections with a new target audience by reflecting their hopes, aspirations, realities and responsibilities, irrespective of their gender or family structure. People will support brands that care about who they are, their life journey and their different purchasing motivations.

Depicting different family structures can also help children understand that, whatever family structure they or others are raised in, they’re also normal and deserve to be respected and accepted. Children and adults alike will recognise and value brands that recognise and value them.

Examples of South African brands that are ahead of the curve
South African brands have started the conversation around the changing family structures with the Kelloggs Corn Flakes #Familymornings campaign and the Nivea Care is Beautiful campaign. The Kelloggs campaign message was that modern families and breakfast rituals might change, but Kelloggs will remain the constant that brings families together. Hlomla Dandala was featured in the ad spot with his five children, and what was great about it was that it told the story of a father who has to balance his career and family – a step away from the usual idea that mothers are always the heroes. The Nivea campaign shared stories about Boitumelo, who is married and has her own children, but had to adopt her late sister’s kids, as well as Michael, who grew up as a street kid and became a mentor to children without fathers. These stories showed families that extend beyond the conventional notion of what a family is.

Bridging to the future
Through in-depth research and sensitive understanding of these different family structures, strategies and ideas can be created to capture the attention of individuals who are underserved or have unmet needs. Unique insights that are drawn from the research could create opportunities for brands beyond the field of communications. For example, financial services providers could develop financial education sessions suited for child-headed households. And events such as father-and-child picnics, movie night parties for orphanages or a grandparents’ day to celebrate the sacrifices they’ve made to raise their grandchildren could serve as platforms for brands to demonstrate the value they could add to real people’s lives, while simultaneously contributing to progress towards social tolerance, inclusivity and acceptance.