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Posted: September 20, 2017

Turning death into hope and poetry into compassion
By Linette Retief, senior writer and concept strategist at STRATEGY et al, part of the et al Group of companies

Mutual Assurance Society and funeral service provider AVBOB’s sponsorship of a Poetry Project in 11 official languages is a rare feat – not quite advertising, not quite marketing, yet wholly and wholeheartedly committed to the organization’s core target markets in their hour of need and in their language of choice.

Given the fact that we’re talking about policyholders, this is not a task for the meek. Rather, judged by the intentions and integrity of AVBOB CEO Frik Rademan, it is an honourable challenge befitting a gentle giant – merging, and harnessing the mechanics of mass communication to reach individuals at their most vulnerable, in the style and manner most appropriate to their grief.

To begin to understand the depth of AVBOB’s commitment requires an understanding of what the organization is ultimately about, and it is not, as conventional wisdom would have it, about death.

“AVBOB does not sell death,” Rademan’ says, “We sell hope.” And the purpose of the Poetry Project, he adds, is not to get ‘free’ advertising, but to get close to their policyholders. Differently put, the Poetry Project is a unique embodiment of their slogan, ‘We’re here for you’.

So, to commend AVBOB for contributing towards the arts and not, say, towards rugby or Formula 1 racing, or for merely doing something out of the conventional advertising box, would be missing the mark. The clue to the real nature of this singular sponsorship lies in a calibre of caring that is deeply woven into AVBOB’s DNA.

To understand that DNA, Rademan says, one has to understand the history of what has become one of South Africa’s most iconic, and sympathetic, brands. And to do this, one has to go back to 1918, when South African soldiers returned from the Second World War – only to be greeted by an epidemic of Spanish Flu.

“During this time, more people died in one day than would normally pass away during a month,” he explains. “And there were no funds for funerals. The nation was on its knees.” In response to this tragedy of literally epidemic proportions,the mutual association that would become AVBOB was started by people, for people in need and in mourning.

Almost 100 years and many evolutions later, this core of caring still prevails. And it is particularly evident in the human truth informing and inspiring the Poetry Project, namely, that in times of overwhelming grief, people often find themselves at a loss for words to express their devastation. Says Rademan, “One of the first things many people ask when they first come to us is if we can help them with the funeral letter?”

AVBOB CEO Frik Rademan

AVBOB CEO Frik Rademan

In line with this need, the Poetry Project is aimed at building up a library of elegiac poetry in all 11 official languages, which will enable policyholders to find the words to explain or express their grief – whether it is for a moment’s consolation or a funeral letter.

While the primary focus remains with the bereaved, the Poetry Project also holds considerable benefit for poets. Comprising a comprehensive competition including wide exposure and considerable cash prizes, the initiative is likely to catapult both established and new poets from the margins to the mainstream of culture.

Hence, says Rademan, the creative rationale behind the Poetry Project: to connect poets and readers who have shared similar experiences about life and death. That he has managed to take on this daunting challenge by harnessing the often practically unwieldy reality of our 11 official languages, says as much about the man as it does about the brand.

Ultimately Rademannot only puts advertising and death in a new perspective;he proceeds to do the same for sponsorship.“The truth is,” he said at the launch of the Poetry Project on 18 July, on Mandela Day, “that neither AVBOB nor any other business can actually ‘sponsor’ poetry. All we can claim is the wish to be associated with the power of poetry – and with the beauty of the human spirit.”

It is an association Rademan takes on with great caution and respect. And he remains ever mindful of the fact that poetry is one of the most ancient creative disciplines and, at the same time, one of the most vibrant and vigorous forms of social commentary, whether the poet is a philosopher or a scientist, and whether the winged words are uttered from behind a university podium or around a braaivleis fire.

“To suggest that AVBOB can do anything meaningful for poetry would, therefore, be completely erroneous,” he concludes. “Rather, it is the other way around: poetry can mean a lot to AVBOB and its people.”

And so, with the same rare and subtle marketing alchemy with which he has transmuted death into hope,and a strategic brand positioning into a heartfelt presence, Rademan will continue to inject the passion of poetry into the process of grief, conveying consolation on a singularly fragile human frequency. And, in so doing, turning the tragedy of bereavement into an opportunity not only for consolation but for connection.