Inside AZAM: one of Africa’s top brands

February 2016

By Edward Harris, Communications Division, WIPO

On a blazing Saturday afternoon in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzanians across this Indian Ocean port city munch on biscuits, bread and ice cream and beat the heat with cola and fruit juice. Boats steam out to sea, ferrying tourists to the island of Zanzibar. At Chamazi Stadium, a leading football team drives toward to the goal line as cameras beam the action to a nationwide TV audience.

It’s a restful weekend scenario, held together by a common thread – AZAM. The snacks and drinks, boats, sports and broadcasting all bear the AZAM trademark, nurtured by a local Tanzanian company from humble beginnings into one of Africa’s most important homegrown brands.

Now, its owner, the Bakhresa Group, is expanding AZAM across East Africa and Southern Africa. This is just the latest development of a trademark that was born in the 1970s in a street-side restaurant selling donuts.

For Abubakar Bakhresa, Executive Director and son of founder Said Salim Bakhresa, the AZAM odyssey holds lessons for entrepreneurs across Africa, and indeed across the globe, who seek to use trademarks to promote their products.

AZAM, one of Africa’s top brands, is now competing in the crowded sports and media space. The AZAM Football Club launched in 2004 is a cornerstone of the company’s expanding content creation and distribution business (photo: WIPO/Edward Harris).

Building a brand requires a long-term vision

“There are no quick answers to developing a brand; it’s a challenge,” Mr. Bakhresa says. “But if you have a very long-term view, your business and your brand will succeed. You have to develop a brand that is not just encompassing your market. You have to have a vision that it can grow beyond your market. You have to believe in the brand.”

These days, a stroll through the bustling markets of central Dar-es-Salaam feels like walking through an AZAM corporate display case. Young men pedal tricycles mounted with AZAM-logoed refrigerators, from which they sell AZAM ice cream. Shop fronts display the wide range of AZAM products: bread, milk, pasta, flour, cola and other soft drinks. Bakhresa trucks transport AZAM goods between depots and restaurants, televisions connected to AZAM cable boxes show AZAM news programs, and AZAM commentators enthusiastically broadcast the fortunes of the AZAM football team.

The Bakhresa Group is now an industrial conglomerate with annual sales of over USD800 million and thousands of employees across East Africa.

The price plus quality challenge

But this wasn’t always the case. Abubakar Bakhresa’s father, Said Salim Bakhresa, began the company in the 1970s, selling baked goods and other comestibles out of a small restaurant. Reflecting Dar-es-Salaam’s unique cultural mix as a trading center on the Indian Ocean, AZAM is derived from Arabic and Urdu terms meaning “great”.

The current logo, which resembles a wave, came later. But the AZAM name has persisted through the company’s rapid growth. This, Mr. Bakhresa explains, is because the public perception of the mark converged with the company’s focus on quality and price, which are key in a country like Tanzania.

“When people came to Africa, they thought the people do not require quality, that they require price. But we managed to get the correct mix – we match quality and price and that has been the success of the brand,” he says. “To achieve that is a challenge.”

Two linchpins of the AZAM brand’s success are large markets, which allow for economies of scale and lower prices, and a strong grip on the entire production process, which promotes quality. The Bakhresa Group invests heavily in state-of-the-art milling, processing and packaging equipment to produce high-quality goods.

The Bakhresa Group has grown from humble beginnings in the 1970s to become an industrial conglomerate with an extensive product range, annual sales of over USD 800 million and thousands of employees across East Africa. AZAM is its flagship brand (photo: WIPO/Edward Harris).

From trademark to top brand

The Group finally too steps to protect the AZAM trademark in 1999, as it began expanding its product line and looked toward entering overseas markets. “At that time the family business was growing… and we felt that it was the right time to make AZAM the flagship brand,” says Mr. Bakhresa. “The vision was always to become a pan-African brand.”

Protecting your trademark at home is a key step to overseas expansion, says Leonila Kishebuka, Deputy Registrar at the Intellectual Property of Tanzania’s Business Registrations and Licensing Agency.

Opening the file containing the original application for the AZAM trademark, Ms. Kishebuka says that a strong trademark is particularly important in less-developed and very diverse markets in which many languages are spoken and consumers seek symbols to help them choose the correct product.

“To the consumers it is identification way to identify the best quality product they want to purchase from the market,” she says. “You cannot just go to the shop and say that I want milled maize flour, you just mention the brand and then you get it. So it is very important to consumers for identification purposes.”

The AZAM brand is now one of very few East African brands to join Apple, Samsung, Google, Microsoft and Coca-Cola on the list of Africa’s 100 most valuable brands in 2015, according to a survey by Brand Africa.

That brand value has real economic implications, explains Mr. Bakhresa. Because AZAM is so well known, the company can launch new products without splashy – and costly – marketing and public relations campaigns.

“That’s the success of the brand. It has evolved and we don’t even need to do much marketing. The day we launch a new product with an AZAM name, immediately, people associate it with quality, price, affordability, and expect that,” he says. “We accept that challenge.”

Scoring new business successes

Competing in a crowded sports and media space is the latest test for the AZAM brand. In 2004, the Group launched the AZAM Football Club, in response to the preponderance of foreign football available on satellite and other television services, Mr. Bakrhesa says. The team is now an anchor of the company’s expanding business in content creation and distribution. “The football club was what actually triggered the growth of the media business,” he explains.

In new studios on a main road leading out of Dar-es-Salaam, past one of the company’s flour-milling factories, AZAM producers are wrapping up post-game coverage of the day’s match. On a sound stage, a young female announcer in a headscarf banters with her male colleague in Swahili, Tanzania’s lingua franca. The evening newscast is being prepared. Advertisements for AZAM roll – all carried into viewers’ homes by AZAM-emblazoned receivers.

So, the transformation of the AZAM brand from baked goods to modern telecommunications is well underway – and there are lessons for other companies looking to expand their brand, Mr. Bakhresa says.

“You have to realize that whatever business is attached to that brand has to succeed and you have to do things correctly. And if your view is maybe just five years or  ten years,  your brand is not going to develop.”

The transformation of the AZAM brand from baked goods to modern telecommunications is well underway.“People associate AZAM with quality, price, affordability, and expect that,” says Abubakar Bakhresa, Executive Director of the Group (photo: WIPO/Edward Harris).

Supporting Tanzania’s economy

For Mr. Bakhresa, strong businesses can promote national development in countries like Tanzania.

“For us, our dream is to make sure that we have more people like us, who are sincere about their business, who want to develop their products, who are there for the long-term, are keen to develop their economies, make sure that you have more entrepreneurs and develop a middle class with more purchasing power – and with governments that are there to support their private sector,” he says.

“If you have that and you have more people like us, if you have more AZAMs out there, I think we have a good chance in Africa, we have a good chance in Tanzania, to reduce poverty and improve the standards of living. I think we are going to go far.”

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