Editor’s Memo: Selling Zimbabwe’s Damaged Goods

LATELY, many countries and companies have embarked on perception management exercises which are usually referred to as rebranding.

These include the strongest and the weakest nations. The process can be quite subtle as was the quest by the Germans to revive national pride through the soccer World Cup in 2006.

In most developing countries though, the process is explicit. It is a quest by government to jettison yesteryear’s ballast of infamy.

It is getting rid of stereotypes and clichés and of classic images that hinder progress. The quest is to replace them with new, fresher, future-oriented, designed ones. Nigeria, notorious for graft and cyber fraud, has lately been brainstorming on rebranding. So has Serbia, infamous for war criminals, nationalism and inflation akin to Zimbabwe’s.

It seems that Zimbabwe will soon be catching the rebranding bug. Last week Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara at a tourism shindig proposed the rebranding of Zimbabwe, but also itemised the obstacles.
“We want to rebrand Zimbabwe, but what are we known for?” asked Mutambara. “How are we perceived by the rest of the world?”

“We are known for violence, farm invasions, disregard for the rule of law, electoral fraud, cholera, an unheard of rocket-propelled inflation, gigantic corruption and mafia-style abductions and kidnappings of journalists, human rights activists and anyone seeking democratic space.”

Mutambara’s statement raises a fundamental poser about the task to hand in the quest to launder Zimbabwe’s image.

In a corporate setting, direction on the mode of rebranding comes from shareholders or managers who would have agreed on which stereotypes to off-load.

Advertising or rebranding a country is a bit more complicated than that. The citizens should be the obvious shareholders, and the people they choose to represent them are supposed to create the advertising campaign and decide on the nature of rebranding.

Therein lies the problem. Politicians in a contested environment like ours do not always agree on fundamental issues.

Rebranding Zimbabwe is therefore not going to be an easy task of putting together an advertising campaign laced with catch phrases and slogans.

We have gone this route before. Government through the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority has presided over a futile perception management campaign to lure tourists to Zimbabwe.

This has involved flying in foreign travel writers, holding beauty pageants, hosting musicians like Joe Thomas and Luciano and sending attaches to source markets.

The benefits have been minuscule compared with the investment in the campaign. The exercise lacked one key aspect.

It was not premised on the admission that there was something wrong with our current Zimbabwe brand. The campaign had its roots in denialism and the attempt to justify every obtuse policy by government. It was designed to defend the indefensible — the same woes that Mutambara mentions above.

It is therefore not surprising that the campaign failed to attract tourists.

In planning to promote a product for better sales, pundits of marketing usually tend to look at the product’s good sides and its competitive advantages and try to promote those in a striking, creative and honest way.

However, this strategy usually works only if you have a good product to begin with.

But if you have damaged goods to sell, you also have to look at the product’s bad sides and denounce them first in order to get to the stage where you promote the good sides.

Acknowledging the possibility that there is something wrong with your product and trying to remove those things is something that the government and those involved in the quest to re-brand the country have to seriously consider.

The good news is that this part doesn’t cost all that much. It is derived from building national consensus in identifying the bad patches of our current existence.

Key to any process of rebranding therefore is not preaching to the converted but to those in our society who do not see anything wrong with the status quo. It is openly talking about the bad things associated with the product Zimbabwe.

Mutambara’s list is comprehensive: violence, farm invasions, disregard for the rule of law, electoral fraud, cholera, hyperinflation inflation, corruption and mafia-style abductions and kidnappings of journalists, human rights activists and anyone seeking democratic space.

To get rid of the bad associations, one has to find the opposites to all of them and promote them and stick to them. In fact, it’s so obvious nobody ever thinks of that.

In short:
Put an accent on a peaceful future with former “enemy nations”, deal decisively with those causing disruptions on the land, promote productivity, invite the international community to observe elections, invest in social services, adopt pragmatic economic reform, stop using nationalistic rhetoric to justify repression, denounce those using it, admit the mistakes from the past and mistakes in the present.

That’s the rebranding we need. We do not need Luciano or Joe Thomas to achieve this!

BY VINCENT KAHIYA