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Confronting stereotypes, negative perceptions of Zim in the new era

The advent of the new dispensation and the consistent pronouncements by His Excellency, the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe,Emmerson Mnangagwa, have brought a sense of optimism and hope to Zimbabweans both internally and in the diaspora. The level of diplomatic engagement and visits by both western and eastern countries reflects renewed interest in this once Jewel of Africa .All is well now on the publicity front, but the new-look Zimbabwe still has an uphill task to convince the world that after 37 years of economic and political turmoil, it can really change to become a critical player on the global stage.

By MUSEKIWA C TAPERA

The consistent, positive and re-engaging message by Mnangagwa at Davos and other international and regional platforms reflects a man who is serious and who seeks to improve the lot of all Zimbabweans who have seen various forms of crisis especially from 1999 to 2016. These positive pronouncements and actions are confronted by a hostile international community that is deeply stereotyped against Zimbabwe that change of perception will take years to correct in order to reflect a new Zimbabwe full of life and progressive thinking. For nation building or is it rebranding, dealing with negative stereotypes and perception is the first step that will make Zimbabwe great again.

Stereotypes and nation branding

Nation branding strategy is met with a variety of handicaps that have to be tackled to produce positive and meaningful results. For a nation as unique as Zimbabwe, due to its socio-political and socio-economic challenges, nation branding strategists have to confront reality head-on and be innovative to grapple with the complex nature of national politics. The nation branding strategy should address the realities on the ground to be meaningful and transformative and to yield positive results. Wilder (2007) acknowledges the importance of one approach to nation branding. She argues that the demanding task nation branding imposes on itself is to identify the unique features of a nation and to display them in a comprehensive way, without being reductive. The task is more demanding because of the diversity of nations which comprises numerous and different aspects of a nation such as history, culture, politics, business and, more importantly, people. This complex nature of nations calls for effective differentiation which calls for each nation to identify intrinsically its unique characteristics, “core competences” and character.

Stereotypes are referred to as conclusions that people hold about other nations because they do not have enough information about them. Stereotypes can be described as outdated oversimplifications and generalisations based on perceptions instead of facts. People who endorse negative stereotypes are referred to as biased because they have negative conclusions that are not grounded in reality and truth or correct or adequate information. Recent studies have shown that most people use stereotypes all the times without knowing it. Researchers using implicit Association Tests (AAT) have found out that many cognitive processes that affect behaviour such as stereotyping are unconscious in nature and are accessible to observation by the actor. Scholars have found out that there is widespread unconscious bias against stigmatised groups, for example African- Americans and Aborigines in Australia and even among people who think they are not biased. Bias is prevalent in evaluation decisions and in perceptions of and interaction with others.Scholars argue that some people may denounce bias in different settings and workplaces, but may still act in ways that reveal biased perceptions and decision-making without conscious awareness of their actions. Zimbabwe as a nation has been a victim of negative perceptions or stereotype internationally based on two premises. Firstly, the socio-political and socio-economic conditions in the country have been poisonous leading to a polarised society marked by political violence, human rights abuses and corruption.Secondly, the land reform meant to redistribute land to the black majority and address land imbalances in the country was widely publicised internationally creating a deep-seated antagonism against the regime. This was despite the fact that land redistribution was inevitable given the historical conflicts that existed since 1893.

Stereotypes as an asset to change perceptions

Therefore bias, or holding some stereotype, is a reality, but one that can be controlled and utilised to infuse positive thinking or perceptions in the target market and audience. Stereotyping or bias in general can be reduced. Burges et al (2007) proposes ways of reducing unconscious stereotyping by highlighting the pervasiveness of stereotyping and actions or behaviours associated with it. The thinking is that making people aware of the automatic nature of stereotype activation and its biased impact, the pervasiveness may activate a willingness to engage in measures to control unproductive thoughts that came out of stereotyping. Nation branding strategists could adopt this approach to target markets by making them aware and educate them on the nature of their stereotyping and provide adequate, well-researched and appropriate information to reduce biases. Zimbabwe could concentrate on the Zimbabwean Land Question by providing its history objectively, but also tackle aspects of the violent nature associated with the land question honestly and truthfully as a strategy to minimise stereotyping in the Western world.

Utilisation of stereotypes for nation branding

Stereotypes are about distorted ideas and can be difficult to change. Wilder (2007) further argues that stereotypes seem to be the enemy and the best friend of nation branders. This is because in practice stereotypes can be utilised as the starting point from which a nation brand can be developed. The negative perception of Zimbabwe as a destination and wide negative media attention of the country can be utilised as an effective starting point for nation branding strategy because information already exists in the public domain from which a nation brand can be created.

Nation branding strategy for Zimbabwe needs to seriously consider the above arguments because if national stereotypes are widely accepted, rigid and integrated in societal practices, the risk is that the strategist can get blinded by stereotypes themselves and fail to take that as an opportunity from which to build upon. The fact that Zimbabwe is etched in the minds of the international community as a hostile country, violent and in political turmoil — stereotypes themselves considering the actual situation on the ground — government should utilise them as platforms from which the image of Zimbabwe is transformed. The negative international media coverage, the quick recall of Zimbabwe in the minds of consumers and negative perceptions can be exploited by marketers to correct this position through the provision of accurate, credible, comprehensive and evidence-based information to targeted audiences.

Importance of situational diagnosis in nation branding

Most governments and their people always believe that there is a problem with their international image, but invest little effort in the diagnosis and analysis of the image problem. Government and concerned nation branding strategists are preoccupied with the notion of a country having a negative reputation and are prompt to crafting solutions before properly dissecting and understanding the problem. In Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority came up with events such as Miss Zimbabwe beauty pageants, the Harare International Carnival and brand ambassadors as strategies to address image problems without a careful, all-stakeholder-driven and participatively-driven approach to analysing the problem.

It is a fundamental premise of any strategic intent to be highly focused and specific about the nature of the problem to be addressed so that the right strategy can be developed for confronting it. It is argued that it is of paramount importance to be concretely sure that there is a problem, not simply a perception or a stereotype about the nation.
Dr Musekiwa Clinton Tapera writing in his personal capacity. He holds a PhD in Management, specialising in Destination Branding of Zimbabwe for tourism performance. He is the director of Marketing and Public Relations at Chinhoyi University of Technology. For feedback and comments-email taperamc@gmail.com or mctapera@cut.ac.zw

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