I am the grandchild of a Croatian grandfather who came to the country in his 30s, married a South African Croatian woman and spent the rest of his life trying very hard, but without much success, to learn the complexity of the English language. This was much to the amusement of his grandchildren to whom he remained a foreign entity who knotted fishing nets (I mean really!), drank vino and water for breakfast and turned the entire garden into a vegetable patch. He passed away suddenly when I was still young, but these are the memories he left with me. Then a few years ago ­I travelled to Croatia for the first time. Suddenly, with my feet on the mother soil, the man he was and everything he did, all of which were strange to this born and bred African, made sense.

I had the same experience recently on a research trip to Ethiopia, for a client who contacted us to come up with a campaign to launch a new product line in the country. As marketers, we tend to think we can imagine ourselves in another’s shoes, that we can magically experience what people in other countries feel and how their economic circumstances may affect their buying behaviour (because after all, we are inherently the same) and so, before leaving and with this mantra in mind, our team spent a number of hours thinking and planning the best route to market in the country. All the surmising and strategies thought up in our Jo’burg boardroom, however, went out the window within a few hours of being on the ground in Addis Ababa.

From the start it was evident that this was not a materialistic, have-to-have society. Instead years of economic hardship, combined with a devoutly religious culture has formed a nation that is kind, forgiving and aware of the difficulties experienced by others. As a result there is no sense of ‘one up-man-ship’ and instead, purchases are made out of need and with due diligence.

Most of the people we spoke to, appreciated the products we were offering, understood that the price would come at a premium and would be willing to spend the money (if they could get them in-country, which is the biggest issue and another topic entirely).

The fact that there is little to no access to online banking, shop cards or easy credit also means that people have to save and pay cash, which makes customers think twice before spending and slows down the purchasing cycle considerably. Once bought, products are expected to do their job properly and for as long as possible, you simply don’t get a later model just because your neighbour has one.

Having met the people and experienced the environment, we got a very real sense of what would work for this particular market and learned once again that Africa is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. To be truly successful, you owe it to yourself, your client and the people that you are wanting to reach, to make the time to get to know the market and the environment in which they operate.

I returned home with an innate sense of the soul of the country and of what will appeal to the broader Ethiopian public. You can research, read and delegate from behind your screen but until you truly immerse yourself in the day-to-day grind of others you will never know how your products may or may not fit into their lives.

Blue Apple celebrates 20 years of helping clients tell their stories and reaching their targets