BY MAQHAWE DUBE
History recounts that in the 18th century, Frederick the Great, of Prussia, embarked on a campaign to ensure that his subjects adopted the potato as a second source of starch. The reason was that: If you had two sources of carbohydrates (wheat and potato) — you reduced the price volatility in bread. In addition, you had two crops to fall back on resulting in a far lower risk of famine. The response from one of his districts captures what the Prussians thought of this new crop: “The ‘things’ have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?”
If you examined the problem he faced, critically, you would note some similarities to the challenge faced by the Buy Zimbabwe campaign. Both campaigns were well thought-out — with the best interests of the respective nation at heart, and were based on flawless economic logic. Both campaigns were met with disinterest, and at times, disdain and scorn by the very people who should have benefited from them!
Frederick the Great’s initial attempts to remedy this challenge was the introduction which is eerily similar to ours. He introduced his version of statutory instruments: attempting to incentivise those who planted potatoes, and punish or, at the very least, inconvenience those who resisted. This logical, rational approach to the problem proved to be a resounding failure, forcing the monarch to adopt an ingenious alternative plan. He decreed the potato a royal crop and banned peasants from farming it. Then he planted “royal” potato patches outside his palace and placed them under guard. Secretly, he told the guards not to be too thorough in their duties so as to allow a few crafty peasants to steal the crop! Before long, there mushroomed a huge underground potato movement of people planting and dealing in the “restricted” crop, and the rest, as they say, is history!
The effectiveness of this new approach was down to this: The peasants figured that, if something was preserved for royalty, it must taste good! Or put another way, if it was worth guarding, it was worth stealing! It was with this seemingly irrational approach that Frederick the Great effectively rebranded the potato in Prussia. Without drawing too many parallels to our situation, let us examine what the Buy Zimbabwe initiative could extrapolate from this.
Rational motives vs real motives
People do not plant potatoes because they are good for the economy! American banker JP Morgan once said: “A man has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.” People rarely make decisions on rational, logical grounds. For instance, research apparently proves that people say that they brush their teeth to protect against cavities and gum disease, but for most, the real reason has more to do with fear of not having fresh breath! That is why 90% of toothpastes are mint-flavoured. We need to look past what people say for the real reason that motivates them to do things. And many a time, that reason is counter-intuitive. The motivations behind Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign may not have been so much about the economy as they were about national pride and fear of losing control to outsiders and immigrants.
The Buy Zimbabwe initiative begs that we look past the obvious for the real reasons that drive Zimbabweans. Could it be that, a sense of justice and fairness motivates us more than monetary incentives? Could it be that, we missed a golden opportunity during the xenophobic violence in South Africa to stir up loyalty towards our local products as a response? Marketers know that the real reason at times may seem stranger than fiction.
The example of opinion leaders
Whatever royalty does, the commoners aspire to do. This is a fact! Despite all the talk we have made about buying local, our influential people and business leaders in Zimbabwe have consistently and emphatically voted against the Buy Zimbabwe gospel, with their actions. They consider it a status symbol to buy and stock imported fruit, beef, drinks, and clothes from abroad. Further to that, they seek medical services and education abroad, and the commoners have dutifully followed suit.
Buy Zimbabwe needs to recruit genuine ambassadors of the Zimbabwe brand — people who will not wait until a Zimbabwean product is the best to love it, but who will love it until it is the best! And there is great need to be wise about it. Clearly, Zimbabwean politics is divisive and therefore, a political figure from either side would alienate a portion of the population. We may need to appeal to respected professionals and those in the arts and culture space to take up this mantle.
Bottom-up approach (inclusivity)
As Frederick the Great knew well, although the crowd is influenced by leaders, the fire of any change is driven from the grassroots. Buy Zimbabwe has felt like it is being forced down people’s throats. The low-key rebellion against it is only instinctive and natural. Contrast this with, arguably, the best national-branding campaign in the last 10 years, albeit short-lived, the #ThisFlag movement. If you stripped it of all political connotations and looked at it through a marketing lense, you would have to admit, it was most effective. It read and tapped into public sentiment perfectly, spoke the customer’s language and gave power to the customer to express his national pride as he understood it. It was inclusive. And it practically had hitherto uninterested Zimbabweans trawling the streets looking for the national flag to wear or stick on their phones and cars and carts! Should we not take notes?
Put simply, a value expressive product is one that allows you to express your values and who you are, over and above the functional benefits. Clothes, food, music and art are some low-hanging fruit here. We all know those typically Zimbabwean foods and products that people miss when they emigrate to the diaspora. Cerevita, Mazoe orange crush, our brand of Charhon’s loose biscuits and our iconic maputi are some that come easily to mind. They provide an easy starting point for Buy Zimbabwe to engender patriotism. These products just scream, “Zimbabwean!”
Imagine the statement it would make if our judges wore traditional attire instead of English wigs? Imagine turning up at a business conference and being served maputi as snacks instead of crisps. Imagine our military guard of honour being inspected to the sound of traditional music instead of a brass band? If it sounds far-fetched and awkward, it just goes to show how the marketers at Buy Zimbabwe have a long way to go in shaping public opinion using value expressive Zimbabwean products.
Two lessons can be gleaned from all of this. First, value is subjective. It is not some fixed, objective, economic reality. It exists in the mind of the customer, and as such, it is much easier to tinker with it than it is to tinker with reality. Secondly, persuasion is better than compulsion. This national branding business is more akin to fishing with bait than it is to hunting!
As we celebrate the 8th year of the Buy Zimbabwe campaign, perhaps it is time to add this perspective to our toolkit. Perhaps, in addition to statutory instruments, import bans, special economic zones and price comparisons, we could recognise culture, perceptions and emotions as key to our success. Like Frederick the Great, perhaps we could reframe this as a social engineering project rather than an economic engineering one only. Perhaps we could recognise that: What Buy Zimbabwe needs, in addition to the logic of economics, is the magic of emotion!
l Maqhawe Dube is a marketing strategist and a partner at Lumathisa IGNITE