|PETERSIDE ECONOMIC REVIEW|
|Chamberlain S. Peterside, Ph.D||Saturday, June 17, 2006|
New York, NY, USA
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PERCEPTION IS KING
…RE-BRANDING AFRICAN MARKETS FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
…Behold, The Power of Brands
he world has come a long way from isolation since the last century; so much that the disparity between perception and reality continues to be blurred. Information about markets and products are increasingly being molded and sustained by consumer perception fed by the press and commercials through print and electronic media outlets. Hence the growing role of advertising and public relations in the age of mass media. As one of the most popular brands in the world that transcends age, geographical boundaries and social strata, Coca cola for instance symbolizes that power of perception, yet the product in of itself is simply a concoction of sugar and water.
Media strategy in our global village is being perfected so well that it could literary “make or unmake anything”. During my university days we learnt that peasant farmers in some poor countries sell more nutritious products like eggs to purchase Coca Cola for their children, - I guess to offer them “the Coke Experience”.
This transformation also applies to countries, though most sub-Sahara African countries are yet to recognize the fact or utilize mass media to market themselves. During the cold war, the communist countries did a fine job of disseminating false propaganda about the western world to their citizens, but as more information filtered through, it was a matter of time before the system crumbled.
Nations, rich and poor alike are spending awful amount of resources to brand and expose their economic potentials to the outside world and the result is visible even in some developing countries. According to a global risk analysis by Aon (an international risk management company), India is rated quite high in terms of threat of terrorism and political risk, yet it attracts nearly 70% of global information technology outsourcing because the country has become branded as a cost-efficient technology hub. Jamaica in the last 15 years has transformed dramatically in the perception of most foreigners, from a politically volatile and poor socialist reggae-country to a favorite tourist destination.
The story is different in sub-Saharan region because it has historically earned a dubious reputation of a continent plagued by civil strife, starvation and corruption. It’s been said that some foreigners still erroneously believe that black Africa is a single country or that people live on trees and in jungles. Those that ultimately visit few cities on the continent come out with a diametrically different view of the place.
Indeed the region has experienced its fair share of misfortune over the years; some self-inflicted and others due to unforeseen natural disasters. International musical concert - Band Aid, organized by Bob Geldorf in 1985 brought to sharp focus ravaging famine in Ethiopia, which claimed over half a million lives. Genocide in Rwanda in early 1990s, and successive civil war in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Southern Sudan, Somalia, etc, and more recently the scourge of HIV/AIDS are all issues of major concern, but that are blotting out the positive trends occurring in other countries around the continent.
Over the last two decades as most countries in Asia and Latin America emerged from poverty and productivity soared in advanced countries, the reverse was the case in Africa south of the Sahara. This is evidenced by the United Nations quality of life index, which reveals that majority of the inhabitants are worse-off today in the region than 30 years ago. The territory has simply become branded (fairly or not) as a region that couldn’t get its act together.
Despite the daunting challenges, some countries on the continent have began to make strides both in terms of reforming their political system and economies, yet the negative stigma still persists. There’s no gainsaying that it would require serious work to dispel the stereotypes and disabuse the minds of foreign investors and tourists that African countries now mean business. As part of that process, the new World Bank President, James Wolfowitz has reiterated that Africa will become the focus of the bank’s activities. Meanwhile African Union has launched the NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development) Program to champion homegrown reform agenda.
Decades of neglect and mismanagement have deprived these countries the opportunity of building modern economic infrastructure and improving life for its people. Rampant embezzlement by political elites and military dictators didn’t help matters. But not since the last decade have we witnessed so much craving for change – a genuine desire both within and outside the continent to face the problems and make amends. Some of the efforts have already began to pay off.
…The Good and The Ugly
Recent statistics indicate that about 15 African countries have had a sustained median growth rate of 5% over the last decade, as their share of in-bound global capital flow continues to rise. Speaking at an industry seminar recently in South Korea, World Bank President also revealed that the fight against corruption, fast growing telecom industry, transparency initiatives in places like, South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria amongst others have been igniting real growth. Unfortunately according to him, these stories are not as well being highlighted in the international media as HIV/AIDS, and poverty
Advances in Telecommunication are helping open new markets and rural areas on the continent. With over 65 million phone subscribers representing 10% of the population, Africa has become one of the fastest growing telecom markets according to World Bank. Energy experts predict that Africa will account for nearly a quarter of US crude oil import by 2015, thanks to the growing role of offshore zones in South West African region (bordering Angola, Gabon, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Sao Tome Principe).
Trade volume between African countries and their third-world counterparts – China and India have been on the upsurge according to a report by Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This generally bodes well for the economies of the continent concluded the report. Some of the perceived high risks in African markets are either myth or often compensated for by superior return on investments, which remains one of the highest anywhere in the world.
Essentially, all this should mean long-term positive outlook for the continent. Except that on face value these strides alone cannot persuade international investors/tourists unless decision makers take concerted steps in building a better reputation and improving brand-image. Apart from South Africa, Botswana, Mauritius, Kenya that have achieved some progress in this direction, most countries remain non-starters as far as building a recognizable positive international brand image is concerned.
The reason is both deep-rooted in aforementioned factors and no thanks to innate incompetence, poor information management and inability to efficiently formulate a clear and concise message about themselves, the economy and harness potentials. This will remain an impediment to attracting significant tourist and investment dollars from the global market for as long as the technocrats refuse to adapt to change.
It is naïve to think that there exists a conspiracy by the “Western Media” to intentionally discredit African countries, as some people might believe. In this day and age, information flies and negative news travels even faster. We must bear in mind that at times, news is reported from a subjective perspective, tweaked or slanted to fit certain motives. Unfortunately, fair and balanced reporting is yet to become the norm in every media outlet worldwide.
Moreso, news coverage today somewhat thrives on crises or negative events and sensationalism. If you search deep into Africa or any other continent for that matter you would always find a fair amount of unpalatable news, which more often than not will be disseminated by the dominant media organizations – the outcome is what we see today. But who is to determine what issues the media houses must cover, or how it should be reported?
…Time to Be Proactive
Over time as opinions are formed it becomes quite difficult to remediate stereotypes. Therefore to gradually counter negative perceptions of their societies and re-brand themselves for the long haul, it is high time African leaders started taking action rather than blaming “Western Media” for their woes. Some of steps worth considering include to:
Chamberlain is the Founder & President of New Era Capital Corp. and MyCompleteFinance.com, a New York based financial services group. He was previously a Financial Advisor in the Global Private Client Group, of Merrill Lynch.