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AZA’s Elizabeth Rossiello on entrepreneurship in Africa, branding across borders and tri-continental motherhood

Last week our branding work for AZA won the Visual Communication Category at this year's Core 77 Design Awards - a huge achievement for our agency. We’re passionate about supporting high growth start-ups, so seeing our work and client recognized on a global stage was a very special moment for the team.

It’s been nine months since we re-branded BitPesa - the largest non-bank-currency broker in Africa - as AZA. Since then the Fintech has gone from strength to strength, raising an additional $15M in debt financing from the Development Bank of Southern Africa and SBI Investments and continuing their global expansion.

Our Head of Client Services, Oliver, caught up with Co-Founder and CEO, Elizabeth Rossiello, fresh from the Davos World Economic Forum where she co-chairs the Global Blockchain Council.

It’s no secret we have a work-crush on Elizabeth here at Wunderdogs. She’s a female founder in a heavily male-dominated industry, a mother of three young children, a champion of emerging markets, and one of the loveliest people we know. We sat down with her to discuss launching a business in Africa, balancing being a mother and a founder, building a workplace culture, and the danger of omitting Africa from conversations on the global economy.

Elizabeth on launching a business in multiple sub-Saharan African countries...

When we first started, I was based in Kenya. After two years, our growth meant we needed a founder presence in expansion markets. My co-founder went to the UK and I travelled frequently to Nigeria to find a licensed partner. A large part of doing business in emerging markets is about execution, it is very hard to outsource that and maintain operational consistency.

When I went to Senegal a year later to open our francophone markets, it was at an earlier stage in terms of technology, innovation, and regulation. Now the market is up and running and we have a great team. After opening Senegal I realised it was easier for me to travel between all three offices if I based myself in London. I can actually get to Lagos faster from my house in London than I can from my house in Dakar!

On raising two children in sub-Saharan Africa and founding a global business….

In Kenya and then also in Nigeria and Senegal, where my children were raised, there is a culture of allowing your children to interact with the community beyond just the parents and direct family. From the teenager on the public bus in Senegal that would take one of my toddlers on his lap without a word so we could all fit in, to the neighbor’s security guard who would play with my daughters every evening, there is much less fear about letting your children also learn from others. This was hugely important for me in getting started with my business, because I had a lot less guilt about not being the only adult my kids learned from.

We had an incredible woman live with us for six years to help watch the girls when I traveled for work. She had a wildly different life experience and approach to parenting. I feel it was a gift for my kids to experience different world views so young. In America, there seems more pressure to be the only influence on your children.

It has been a lot harder trying to run a business and have a young family here in London, even though my house is next to the office. I now race back and forward between the office and home. To make it work, my husband has put his intensive career on hold somewhat, to work part-time from home.

On work-life balance and achieving it….

Firstly - you have to have a partner who understands your workload. Most of the other women I meet with intense careers have a partner who also has an intense life: nobody is guilty and you’re both trying to make it work. Less frequently, I know women who have stay-at-home partners. It would be nearly impossible to carry the majority of work at home and lead at work while your partner does not contribute more than average.

In the early days, my husband would be working in Chad or South Africa regularly - we’d have a Google Calendar showing our schedules - one of us would return home, high five the other, take over family duties and the other would leave. Neither one of us felt guilty if we came home from work, had dinner as a family, then went back online until midnight.

On the daily routine….

I’m a 24hr person - but I take time each day where I completely turn off work. When I’m with my kids, I am 100% present and when I am at work, I am laser-focused. I prioritize and separate my time to get each role done efficiently.

In the early days, I had set breaks in my day, and I knew that at 6 PM I had to go home to relieve the nanny. So, I would be super efficient every day with deadlines. You can’t miss the deadline to feed your kids or put them to bed. Also, I was a very efficient parent. The kids would be in bed by 8:01 PM as I had a call at 8:15 PM.

On managing time when traveling and maximizing productivity…

When I lived in Africa this was really hard. In Senegal, I spent 50-75% of my time on the road as there are not many direct flights from Dakar. When I lived in Nigeria, a lot of my work was in Lagos, but traffic was so bad I had to constantly work in the car so as not to miss a school drop or dinner regularly.

It was sometimes hard to discuss this balance with non-female peers, investors, and work acquaintances. They did not seem to understand why I traveled with my kids, or felt stressed about missing out on school events, or why I was so strict about racing home by Friday evenings. When I met a female founder who had her infant with her at meetings in Davos, I was so excited to see somebody who was living a similar experience to me. But, this was the exception.

On the 50/50 female to male employee ratio at AZA…

At AZA, when managers need to hire fast, they often end up hiring men. It is a combination of recruiting firm resumes, network referrals, and just bad habits. It doesn't matter if the manager is male or female, without a concerted effort we see teams start to skew more males. To counteract this, we have a quota and actively challenge managers to build high-performing teams that are 50% female.

We also strive to have the highest percentage possible of black Africans, approximately 85%. We always look to hire locally; what's meant by that is we don’t hire expats and fly them into our African offices - equally in London and Madrid, we look for people who are residents in these markets but have experience or a deep interest in Africa.

On the challenge of meeting the ratio…..

It is so hard when the market tells you that building a female, African-focused team isn’t possible. We just hired a female Chief Revenue Officer, a position that took over a year to fill. Two recruitment firms repeatedly tried to dissuade me, saying I was ignoring the most qualified candidates who were male. I ended up finding her myself by going to page 37 on LinkedIn one night at midnight! She is the perfect fit for the job.

You have to hire with intent. We make true diversity and equity a goal and an essential part of our company culture. It isn’t going to happen accidentally - this world is biased and that bias will show up in your teams if you do not actively work against it.

On the Wunderdogs’ rebranding efforts….

Initially, the re-branding process was painful because when we polled the team, everyone wanted a word that reflected their office or country. It became very nationalistic! We were also very afraid of re-branding as BitPesa had such strong brand equity. We arrived at something neutral that everyone loved and wasn’t exclusive to one office or country. It took time for people to adjust, but the feedback from clients, investors, and partners has been that they love it and they’ve questioned why we didn’t do it sooner!! They all think AZA is a very strong brand, they love the word, they love that it looks like a currency, love the A to Z and back.

It’s been a pleasure working with the team at AZA and we’ve loved watching the business grow - here’s to many more years of adventure and success. Lastly thank you to Elizabeth for the insights into launching, scaling, and motherhood - as well as the importance of paying attention to Africa, branding is just one of the many services we offer at Wunderdogs - find out about all the other exciting things we get up to here.

FAQS

How do vision and mission statements impact a company's long-term direction?

Effective vision and mission statements should ideally constitute important tools in formulating a company’s strategy. They should largely remain unchanged through the years, though a significant pivot may bring about new vision and mission statements. Together, they work to define the focus of the business and how it impacts the world. 

The vision statement is a representation of your company’s view of a better world. The mission statement reflects how it sets about to achieve this vision. They work together to create internal alignment and help with strategic decision making. When planning for the future, developing new products, or experimenting with new strategies, teams can perform a quick check against the vision and mission statements to ensure that these initiatives are aligned with the essence of the brand. 

In short, the vision and mission statements are powerful tools which can and should impact decisions across the organizations, making them important factors in a company’s long-term direction.

How does brand strategy influence the overall success of a business?

Your brand strategy reflects how your brand sees the world and its role within it. It is the framework that, ideally, should guide all your communications (both external and internal) and audience touchpoints, i.e. each interaction an audience member has with your business. 

Having standardized communication across all channels and touchpoints makes business processes smoother and positively influences your client relationships, ensuring you develop strong, long-term connections with your customers. It also simplifies strategic decision-making and aligns your team. All these factors are vital to the success of a business.

How do messaging frameworks help communicate your brand message effectively?

Messaging frameworks are structured guides that outline the core messages, value propositions, and differentiators of a brand. They ensure consistency across all communications, from marketing materials and social media posts to customer service interactions. By defining key messages that resonate with the brand's target audiences, messaging frameworks help ensure that a brand’s communications are clear and memorable. 

They also help organizations stay aligned internally and ensure that each member, regardless of their role, understands what the brand’s key message is and how to communicate it effectively. This internal alignment is crucial for presenting a unified brand image to the outside world.

What specific elements contribute to a brand's verbal identity?

A brand’s verbal identity should align your team on how your brand communicates and how this communication changes depending on the situation. It defines a specific and recognizable language through which your brand can deliver its message to your audience or audiences.

Typically, a verbal identity includes some, or all, of the following elements:

Brand personality: This captures the human traits or characteristics that your brand embodies, such as being adventurous, sophisticated, or reliable, which help shape how your brand is perceived.

Brand voice: The brand voice reflects how your brand reflects its personality across all communication channels.

Brand tone: While the brand voice remains consistent, the brand tone can change depending on the context of the message and the audience being addressed, ranging from formal and professional to informal and friendly.

Messaging frameworks: These are strategic tools that outline the key messages your brand intends to communicate to its different target audiences, ensuring that all messaging is aligned with your brand's mission, vision, and value propositions.

Messaging examples: These provide specific examples of how your brand's messaging might be applied in various scenarios.

Style and grammar guidelines: These outline your preferred spelling, grammar, and style, ensuring that your communication is consistent across the board. 

What are some key considerations when developing a tone of voice for a brand?

The first and most important consideration is the brand’s personality. While businesses are functional, they still communicate with people – and people primarily connect with stories and personas. Your brand’s personality will define a set of human characteristics which reflect how it sees itself in the world. By giving your brand these human attributes, you are making it both distinctive and easier to identify with. The tone of voice should reflect your brand’s personality.

It’s also important to consider your target market and your audience’s expectations. While having a distinctive tone of voice is important for memorability, there is such a thing as being too different. If all brands in your segment adopt a serious, professional tone, and you would like to be fun and playful, there is certainly space for that, but consider very carefully why you are doing it.

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FAQS

How does competitive benchmarking influence the development of a visual identity?
Competitive benchmarking is important in developing a brand's visual identity as it provides insights into the market environment. By examining the competition, a brand can better understand its unique value proposition and strengths. This understanding is crucial in identifying what sets the brand apart from others.With this knowledge, a brand can lean into its unique strengths when crafting its visual language. This approach ensures that the visual identity not only looks appealing but also reinforces the brand’s distinct point of view and competitive edge.
How does visual identity differ across industries, and how can a brand ensure it stands out while remaining authentic?
Visual identity varies significantly across industries, shaped by both the industry norms and the unique aspects of each brand. Understanding where your brand stands in the competitive market is essential when crafting a visual identity that both stands out and remains authentic.Industries have distinct visual trends that are often expected by consumers. For instance, financial services brands typically adopt a reserved, traditional look with a color palette dominated by blues and greys. In contrast, skincare brands often go for a lighter, more colorful approach with pastels. Being aware of these industry-specific trends is important because it helps to decide how much your brand should differentiate itself from these norms. This differentiation should be based on your audience's expectations and your brand's unique value propositions.For example, a financial services brand that emphasizes its use of innovative technologies might choose a more digital-oriented visual language. Similarly, a skincare brand that focuses on scientific innovation might benefit from a more science-based visual language.
What are the key considerations when creating visual concepts for a brand?
The visual identity of a brand should quickly and clearly reflect its strategic positioning. Designers begin the process of creating visual concepts by immersing themselves in the brand’s strategy to extract key narrative themes. These themes are then translated into a visual language that employs both emotional and aesthetic elements to communicate the brand's messages. This translation is crucial as it shapes how the audience perceives and interacts with the brand.When developing visual concepts, it's important to make sure they align with the brand's strategy and fit well within the competitive landscape: demonstrating key differentiators, but still fitting into the industry at large. The visuals should also be suitable for the mediums they will be used in. Whether for digital, print, or physical applications, the choice of medium can greatly influence how the visual concepts are designed.
How does visual identity contribute to brand recognition and trustworthiness?
Visual identity is key to boosting brand recognition and trustworthiness, especially in busy markets. When a company maintains a consistent visual brand across different platforms, it becomes easier for customers to recognize and remember it. This consistency is crucial for standing out among competitors.Having a consistent visual identity also shows professionalism and attention to detail. These qualities make customers more likely to trust a brand. When a brand looks the same across all touchpoints, from websites to products and ads, it tells customers the brand is reliable and serious. This builds trust and makes customers more likely to pick this brand over others that may not look as professional or consistent.
How do brand guidelines ensure consistency in visual identity across different platforms?
Brand guidelines are a key tool for maintaining a consistent visual presentation across various platforms. These guidelines typically outline the main use cases where the brand's visual identity will appear and provide comprehensive rules and standards. The guidelines include detailed instructions on how to use the brand’s assets, such as logos, color palettes, typography, and imagery. This ensures that anyone using these assets, whether they're designers, marketers, or external partners, can apply them correctly and consistently. It’s crucial that the entire team is familiar with these guidelines. It’s important to get team buy-in on the visual identity and ensure that the guidelines are easily accessible. When the whole team understands and follows the guidelines, the brand's visual identity remains unified across all touchpoints, enhancing brand recognition and trust.

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