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Zimbabwe: Is Paradise Lost?

Exactly this time in July last year, I wrote an article titled “Zimbabwe: What are our options?” In the article I appealed to you, fellow citizens, to dig into your collective wisdom about the future of our country. I was humbled by your responses which ranged from extreme apathy, pessimism and despondency to militancy, hope and rebirth. From the myriad of responses, I got the feeling that paradise is not yet lost in spite of the sentiments of some of our compatriots who thought Zimbabwe had descended into purgatory.


Betrayal

But what is discomforting is that there seems to be a lack of commitment by some of our country’s leading voices to tackle the serious problems facing our country. In some cases, our inertia as a nation emanates from the fear of changing our failed political system because we are either cowards or we have surrendered to the top predators of the food chain who are hell bent on plundering our country, hoping that we shall eat the crumbs that fall from their dining table.


And worse still, we have betrayed our country since the dawn of our ‘independence’. We have betrayed our country in that we have lied, without shame, to ourselves and to our people that we can improve the quality of their lives by creating jobs and by ushering in hope, social justice and prosperity. We have lied to ourselves that we can transform our country from being a rodent economy to a thriving modern state, from inequality to equality, from injustice to justice and from despotism to democracy. Of late we have deceived our people by crafting a new constitution whose intent and spirit we are not prepared to implement because it prevents those of us who are privileged from plundering the wealth that God has given to all of us. This unabated chicanery is the greatest betrayal of our mother land.


We can quibble about who has betrayed our country the most, but the bottom line is that each one of us is guilty through either our silence in the face of an apparent collapse of our country or through our inability to work together, like a pride of lions, in order to bring down the charging buffalo. Those who do not want to accept self-criticism vicariously argue that the ruin of our country has been caused by ZANU PF and its long-serving chief executive officer. They wash their hands, like Pontius Pilate, and proclaim to the world that they have never been part of the rot. That is sheer hypocrisy because the ruin of our country would not have taken place had we not been complicit in its meltdown. We must accept the painful truth that, we Zimbabweans, through a combination of our cowardice and docility have allowed our country to be ruined. Today we have lost self-respect and are a laughing stock of the region and the continent. What practical steps have we taken to prevent our country from going down the drain? Where is our resistance and fighting spirit for which we are well known?


Yes, ZANU PF and its leadership have played a major role in destroying what used to be the jewel of Africa. Yes they have acted like a leopard which eats its own cubs. Yes they have destroyed our farming industry, our infrastructure and the industrial capacity of our country through their blind policies. Yes they have rigged the results of successive elections, and yes they have haemorrhaged the soul and spirit of our people. But we are equally guilty of allowing the rot to take place through our pusillanimity which makes us fear to take the slightest risk. What did we do to correct the situation? All we did was to cry foul or hide our heads in the sand, like an ostrich, pretending that everything is fine and that life will be better in the near future. In our meekness and timidity, we have said to ourselves that we should mind our own family affairs and not meddle in the political affairs of our country. Now we are paying the price because the centre can no longer hold. Who is to blame?


With all our exalted education, did we not see in advance the chicanery of the pied piper who promised milk and honey? Did we not see the thieving hand that pick-pocketed our inalienable human rights, our freedom and our democracy? It seems to me that our collective ‘innocence’ makes us guilty of betraying ourselves and our country. Admittedly, the degree of betrayal may have differed. Some of us may have been involved in a vertical, perpendicular, acute or horizontal betrayal, but that is neither here nor there. The difference is simply a geometrical calculation which attempts to measure our involvement but not to exonerate ourselves from collateral damage. Quite clearly, in one way or the other, we all share the same blame. But together we can regain our lost paradise if we answer, unequivocally, this simple question: When and how are we going to stop the decay of our country?


Haunting Past

Perhaps at the centre of our problems is our haunted past. Since independence, we have never cast out the demons of our past by coming out into the open to admit that we have inflicted grievous harm to some of our fellow citizens and have gruesomely killed some of them. As we may be aware, in many human cultures, an innocent blood that is shed comes back to haunt you. We did not speak out openly, like South Africans did in their truth and reconciliation commission chaired by Bishop Tutu, about our dark past. And neither did we ask for forgiveness from those we humiliated, even if it was clear that we needed to do so. Like an unrepentant sinner, we did not seek reconciliation among ourselves but, instead, decided to move on as if nothing had happened. So, the restless spirit of those we wronged and those we killed in the past is now visiting our land, more especially that we have betrayed the ideals for which they died. Perhaps in their graves they are asking: Is this the Zimbabwe we died for?


And for a moment I want you to pause and imagine what our fallen heroes are thinking about us. What is Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Leopold Takawira, Herbert Chitepo, Josiah Tongogara, Dr Edson Sithole, J. Z. Moyo, Lookout Masuku, Solomon Mujuru and the thousands of our people who died in Mozambique and Zambia in pursuit of our freedom saying about the current situation in Zimbabwe? Do you think they are happy? In their meetings in the world of the spirits, what are they saying about us? Don’t you think they are angry with us, not because we hurt or killed them, but because we have betrayed what they stood for?


The echo of our haunted past increases with greater resonance when we think about the thousands of our compatriots who were murdered in Matebeleland and the Midlands by the notorious gukurahundi as part of a power struggle and ethnic cleansing. Their lingering spirit, bludgeoned skulls and scattered bones stare at us demanding a simple answer to a simple question: Why did you kill us? Do we not need to appease their restless spirit so that we can reconcile ourselves with our sordid past?


What about the savage dispossession of our fellow white citizens of their farms? Although it is indisputable that we needed to redress the injustices of the past, did we need to brutalise the powerless minority in order to bring about justice? Did we need to punish them because of their whiteness and the sins committed by their fathers? Did we need to repeat history by dispossessing the white minority like the fascist Hitler regime did to the Jewish minority in Nazi Germany? Surely we had all the instruments of power to smoothly redistribute our farm land to the landless without destroying our thriving agriculture. What is our lasting solution?


Similarly, we are also haunted by the images of the houses that were callously demolished by those who were frightened of the burgeoning population in our urban areas. Those in power savagely hacked down the houses of the powerless under the pretext that their dwellings were illegally built. They ruined their lives by destroying the only assets they could bequeath to their children. They destroyed a whole generation of our people by inflicting on them an indelible pain. Can you visualise the image of that woman whose beautiful house was wrestled down by the bull dozers while she stood by watching helplessly and crying for divine intervention? Her permanent sorrow runs deep into our conscience. Has she, like many others who were similarly traumatised, pardoned those who inflicted pain on her?


What about the pain of those who lost overnight all their savings through a self-inflicted hyper- inflation? What do we say to those who died because they couldn’t pay their hospital bills; not because they didn’t have some money but because their money had suddenly become worthless due to the mismanagement of our economy? Is there any just compensation for those whose life insurance policies withered away because the Zimbabwean dollar irretrievably lost its value? The pain is too deep in our flesh. It is over here, it is over there in you and me. It cuts deep like a knife or a spear piercing into our heart, and it is so deep and excruciating that we cannot pretend our nation is not hurt. Therefore, in order for us to march into the future confidently, we need a healing process which deals with our turbulent past. The current battle with the street vendors who are trying to survive by selling small items on our streets is yet another pain being inflicted on an already bleeding nation. But there is an irrepressible inner voice which continues to ask: When and how are we going to put to an end all this suffering?

Amazing Resilience

Yet, in spite of the pain and suffering our people are going through, one cannot fail to marvel at their indomitable spirit. They crack jokes and exude an abundant warmth and love, which you rarely find in other parts of our continent. The rank and file of our people survive, against all odds, on the scraps and crumbs the rich have discarded. They criss-cross the urban centres in order to cut some small deals and sell all sorts of merchandise to make a living. Our taxi drivers wake up very early in the morning to drive their ramshackle vehicles and stay on until there are no more passengers to ferry. They are not even deterred by the corrupt traffic cops who demand a bribe for every flimsy traffic offence.


Much more resilient are our women who stand all day long at their market stalls waiting for someone to fork out a few cents to buy their vegetables and small items. At the busy bus stops, young men work like bees, transporting the goods and luggage of travellers who want to board a bus or a mini bus to go home or find a menial job somewhere else. And in the cities, street children who are hardened by poverty guard, wash and polish the cars of the privileged from sun rise to sun set.


Those in the rural areas show an equally amazing stamina. They work tirelessly on their small pieces of land to feed their families. The searing heat does not weaken them. They tenaciously plough, weed and harvest whatever nature has decided to give them during the season. Their perspiration and salty sweat does not slow them down, but greases their determination to survive. They are driven by the wise words of our elders who say that a chicken that does not scratch the ground dies of hunger. Because of this, they work from sun rise till sun set; and the same cycle repeats itself the following day and the day after, throughout the whole year. This is the amazing spirit of our people which waits to be harnessed for the restoration of our lost paradise.


I know that there are some sceptics who think that a return to paradise in Zimbabwe is a pipe dream because we have lost so much ground over the years. Yes we have been dislocated, but not fractured. We still have our survival instinct. We have gone through this before from 1965-1980 when the whole world imposed sanctions on Rhodesia when Ian Douglas Smith, the last white prime minister, declared unilateral independence in 1965. After independence in 1980, when sanctions were removed, the economy boomed. And the same recovery trend was experienced when we had a government of national unity from 2009-2013. These are the indicators that show that, given the right political environment, our country can rise again to its former glory, especially because we are richly endowed with gold, diamonds, platinum, nickel, chrome, iron ore, coal, gas, rich farm land and above all, a skilled and hard-working people. But the question is: how and when are we going to bring back our lost paradise?   

Political Rebirth

In order to regain our lost paradise, we urgently need to have a new political vision whose agenda is to restore the dignity of our country. For thirty five years since 1980 many of our people acquiesced under the rule of ZANU PF because it had liberation credentials. The party was successively given a blank cheque to rule our country hoping that it would translate our political gains into economic prosperity. But it has failed our people. It has failed us in that it has neither brought about political freedom nor has it fulfilled part of its social contract by creating an enabling environment which makes our people achieve their dream of happiness and prosperity. What it has succeeded to do over the years is to run down the country through its drunken policies and to drive out three to five million of our people into exile. It has no good story to tell, except a tale of betrayal and tragedy. Yes, it has run a long distance race for thirty five years, but now it has run out of steam. We need a political rebirth to save our country from becoming the wretched of the earth.


Today, ZANU PF can be likened to an old bus with so many dents, broken parts, torn seats, shattered windows, a cracked front screen with no head lamps or rear lights. The engine is smoking and the tyres are worn out. The driver, though highly respected, is old and ailing but is crafty and wily enough to silence rebellion. He has run out of ideas and does not know where to drive the bus. While there are still some passengers in the bus, they are quarrelsome and dangerously thuggish. There are too many factions in the bus which are ready to back-stab each other. They thrive on boot licking and singing praise songs of the driver. The more intelligent conductors and passengers are aware that the engine is going to knock. So, they are busy plundering whatever they can lay their hands on before it is too late. Can this bus be trusted to take us to our destination?


On the other hand, there is an MDC bus. It, too, has factions. The main MDC remains the omnibus, with many passengers wearing red t-shirts. The bus is road worthy and is carrying jubilant passengers from many parts of the country. The engine is in good condition as well as the body parts. The driver is tried and tested. He has been previously beaten up by ZANU PF thugs who fear his bewitching charm and charisma, and he has been involved in a suspicious road accident which sadly claimed the life of his wife. He remains as constant as the northern star in his resolve to bring about democracy; but the main problem is that, in spite of the international goodwill he enjoys, he appears to have no clear vision about where to drive the bus. He needs our support in order to gain more courage. He has demonstrated his willingness to work with other people and stands out as a crowd pulling driver who can galvanise the masses into action.


But, as we all know, the movement for democratic change is no longer a monolithic organisation. It now has two splinter groups which are like two mini buses competing with the main bus to get some passengers. One of the mini buses is parked in Bulawayo. It is licensed and is road worthy, but it has no designated route. It has tried to pirate some passengers from the main bus, but has been hamstrung by its lack of visibility. The driver is intelligent and well educated, but is a victim of his own ambition and intransigence. He is a national asset who should be persuaded to accept the wisdom of our elders who advise us that one figure cannot crush a louse.


Another faction of the movement which calls itself the Renewal Team is trying to launch its own mini bus. The team has been trying to do a market research in order to find a niche in the saturated political market. The ‘team’ has set a date when they are going to launch their mini bus. It is unclear what name the mini bus will be called and the route it will take. We still do not know whether it will commute in the major cities and townships or it will go to the rural areas. Whatever name or route it will take, the important thing is that it must be viable. From the look of things, the team will struggle to breathe a new life into a congested political space. By calling themselves a ‘team’, they have inadvertently admitted that they are just a group of individuals with a singular purpose.


This aside, we must commend the ‘renewal team’ for having publicly announced that they are prepared to work with others in order to bring about meaningful change to our country. Like their obscure ‘renewal team’, they seem to suffer from self-contradiction in that while they say they are prepared to form a grand coalition with other political formations, one wonders whether it was necessary to break away from the main MDC in order to form a ‘grand coalition’. And is it constructive to suggest that they do not want to unite with the leader of the main MDC who clearly commands the largest support in the country? Be that as it may, the driver of the renewal team is a distinguished son of Zimbabwe who, I believe, will be wise enough to realise that sticks in a bundle are difficult to break. That is the ideal which the team should work towards in order to achieve the Zimbabwean dream of a free and just society.


This leaves us with the oldest mini bus, which is ZAPU. It would seem, to all intents and purposes, it long ceased to be on the road. It is in the scrap yard with no engine, no tyres, has broken windows and is rusty and dilapidated. The only visible thing on the mini bus are the fossil letters written boldly: Zimbabwe African Peoples Union. Its continued existence is probably inspired by nothing else but nostalgia and sentiment. And those who have fond memories of its past achievements often gather in the ramshackle mini bus to reminisce on how the organisation used to unite all our people into one critical mass. Its past slogan of ‘the son of the soil’ or umtwana welizwe/mwana wevhu united all our people, regardless of one’s tribe, race or class. Its present leader is a true son of the soil who has been humiliated by the current regime. He is a liberation hero whose spirit has not been broken by those who dislike what he stands for. He is the remnant of resistance and remains an icon of justice and freedom. He is prepared to work with others who share the same dream and has demonstrated his selflessness by uniting with Dr Simba Makoni, another brilliant son of Zimbabwe whose ideal of widening the democratic space has been frustrated by his ex-colleagues in ZANU PF.  

Resolution

As can be seen from the above analysis, the will is there already to form a broad-based front in order to regain our lost paradise. Each opposition group has declared openly that they are willing to work with others in order to save our country from an inevitable collapse. Also, it is necessary to open up the political space to include those who have been expelled from ZANU PF. We should not forget the dictum that in politics there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. Political marriages always mutate depending on the circumstances. As the situation stands, there are no ideological differences which can prevent us from uniting. We all share the same ideal: that of making Zimbabwe a prosperous country which we can all be proud of. The era of an antagonistic Marxist-Leninist ideology versus capitalist imperialism is now gone. What we need to do is to immediately open up dialogue in order to find one another. Anyone who refuses to heed the call for unity runs the risk of being judged harshly by history as a traitor.


In order to unite, may I humbly remind Messrs Biti, Dabengwa, Makoni, Ncube, Tsvangirai and Dr Mujuru that you stand on the cross roads. You either choose to follow the path of unity in order to save our country from ruin or you go it alone knowing that our people will not forgive you for betraying their hopes. This clarion call is also extended to ZANU PF. I know that some of those in the party genuinely want to see change, but they are under the spell of fear. My candid advice is that they should not betray their conscience and go down in history as having been responsible for the destruction of our beautiful country. They can maintain their honour by joining forces with those who want to bring back our lost paradise. The same goes to our churches. They need to stand up courageously and be counted on the side of the suffering and the down-trodden by preaching the gospel of liberation and salvation. The book of Proverbs is awash with messages that warn against oppression. For instance, Proverbs Chapter 14 verse 31 is quite explicit: “If you oppress poor people, you insult the God who made them; but kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship”.


In seeking unity, we need to be very clear about the sort of unity which suits our unique circumstances. It is my considered view that we need to explore all the possible options. For instance, we can form a patriotic front, a grand coalition, a loose alliance, an umbrella party with individual identities or a new political party altogether. The merits and demerits of each of these options require another discussion. But as a person who is deeply concerned about the future of our country, I am prepared to join forces with those who want to bring about a lasting solution to our country.


While we work out the modalities of a broad based unity, we need to (1) prepare a programme for the economic recovery of our country in the short and long term, (2) engage the international community for a marshal plan to rescue our country from its current economic morass, (3) review our investment and land redistribution policies, (4) establish a watch-dog organ with the help of the United Nations to ensure that our mineral resources and other national assets are not further plundered, (5) draw up a concrete plan for a credible, free and fair election under the auspices of the international community, (6) devise a plan with the assistance of the international community to lure back Zimbabweans in the diaspora, and (7) establish a national healing and reconciliation commission which will bring closure to our turbulent past.
 

Conclusion

To wrap up, let me humbly submit to you, fellow citizens, that my writing this paper is driven by my deep concern for the future of our country, your country, the country of our children and those who will come after them. I know that you are equally concerned and so are the millions of our people. I also know that you are prepared to unite for the salvation of our country. Our first step, therefore, is to call on all our political movements to unite so that we can restore our lost paradise. I hope that they will not fail us. Let me also assure you that we are fortified by the knowledge that no amount of force, no matter how mighty it is, can ever stop us from reclaiming what is rightfully ours: the right to happiness and prosperity. We are also strengthened by the spirit of our ancestors who tell us that “tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it”. As I end my paper, allow me to leave you with these poetic words:


We are the new buds that unfurl from the old leaves

We bubble youthfulness in our quest for a new spring

In the past we harvested the leaves, but never the fruit

We are ready for the future’s cradle like a new seed

Discarding the old shell that slowed down our walk


Professor Ambrose B. Chimbganda can be contacted at: chimbga42@gmail.com

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Opinions

IEC Disrespects Batswana: A Critical Analysis

10th November 2023

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has recently faced significant criticism for its handling of the voter registration exercise. In this prose I aim to shed light on the various instances where the IEC has demonstrated a lack of respect towards the citizens of Botswana, leading to a loss of credibility. By examining the postponements of the registration exercise and the IEC’s failure to communicate effectively, it becomes evident that the institution has disregarded its core mandate and the importance of its role in ensuring fair and transparent elections.

Incompetence or Disrespect?

One possible explanation for the IEC’s behavior is sheer incompetence. It is alarming to consider that the leadership of such a critical institution may lack the understanding of the importance of their mandate. The failure to communicate the reasons for the postponements in a timely manner raises questions about their ability to handle their responsibilities effectively. Furthermore, if the issue lies with government processes, it calls into question whether the IEC has the courage to stand up to the country’s leadership.

Another possibility is that the IEC lacks respect for its core clients, the voters of Botswana. Respect for stakeholders is crucial in building trust, and clear communication is a key component of this. The IEC’s failure to communicate accurate and complete information, despite having access to it, has fueled speculation and mistrust. Additionally, the IEC’s disregard for engaging with political parties, such as the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), further highlights this disrespect. By ignoring the UDC’s request to observe the registration process, the IEC demonstrates a lack of regard for its partners in the electoral exercise.

Rebuilding Trust and Credibility:

While allegations of political interference and security services involvement cannot be ignored, the IEC has a greater responsibility to ensure its own credibility. The institution did manage to refute claims by the DISS Director that the IEC database had been compromised, which is a positive step towards rebuilding trust. However, this remains a small glimmer of hope in the midst of the IEC’s overall disregard for the citizens of Botswana.

To regain the trust of Batswana, the IEC must prioritize respect for its stakeholders. Clear and timely communication is essential in this process. By engaging with political parties and addressing their concerns, the IEC can demonstrate a commitment to transparency and fairness. It is crucial for the IEC to recognize that its credibility is directly linked to the trust it garners from the voters.

Conclusion:

The IEC’s recent actions have raised serious concerns about its credibility and respect for the citizens of Botswana. Whether due to incompetence or a lack of respect for stakeholders, the IEC’s failure to communicate effectively and handle its responsibilities has damaged its reputation. To regain trust and maintain relevance, the IEC must prioritize clear and timely communication, engage with political parties, and demonstrate a commitment to transparency and fairness. Only by respecting the voters of Botswana can the IEC fulfill its crucial role in ensuring free and fair elections.

 

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Opinions

Fuelling Change: The Evolving Dynamics of the Oil and Gas Industry

4th April 2023

The Oil and Gas industry has undergone several significant developments and changes over the last few years. Understanding these developments and trends is crucial towards better appreciating how to navigate the engagement in this space, whether directly in the energy space or in associated value chain roles such as financing.

Here, we explore some of the most notable global events and trends and the potential impact or bearing they have on the local and global market.

Governments and companies around the world have been increasingly focused on transitioning towards renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. This shift is motivated by concerns about climate change and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Africa, including Botswana, is part of these discussions, as we work to collectively ensure a greener and more sustainable future. Indeed, this is now a greater priority the world over. It aligns closely with the increase in Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing being observed. ESG investing has become increasingly popular, and many investors are now looking for companies that are focused on sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint. This trend could have significant implications for the oil and fuel industry, which is often viewed as environmentally unsustainable. Relatedly and equally key are the evolving government policies. Government policies and regulations related to the Oil and Gas industry are likely to continue evolving with discussions including incentives for renewable energy and potentially imposing stricter regulations on emissions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a strong role. Over the last two years, the pandemic had a profound impact on the Oil and Gas industry (and fuel generally), leading to a significant drop in demand as travel and economic activity slowed down. As a result, oil prices plummeted, with crude oil prices briefly turning negative in April 2020. Most economies have now vaccinated their populations and are in recovery mode, and with the recovery of the economies, there has been recovery of oil prices; however, the pace and sustainability of recovery continues to be dependent on factors such as emergence of new variants of the virus.

This period, which saw increased digital transformation on the whole, also saw accelerated and increased investment in technology. The Oil and Gas industry is expected to continue investing in new digital technologies to increase efficiency and reduce costs. This also means a necessary understanding and subsequent action to address the impacts from the rise of electric vehicles. The growing popularity of electric vehicles is expected to reduce demand for traditional gasoline-powered cars. This has, in turn, had an impact on the demand for oil.

Last but not least, geopolitical tensions have played a tremendous role. Geopolitical tensions between major oil-producing countries can and has impacted the supply of oil and fuel. Ongoing tensions in the Middle East and between the US and Russia could have an impact on global oil prices further, and we must be mindful of this.

On the home front in Botswana, all these discussions are relevant and the subject of discussion in many corporate and even public sector boardrooms. Stanbic Bank Botswana continues to take a lead in supporting the Oil and Gas industry in its current state and as it evolves and navigates these dynamics. This is through providing financing to support Oil and Gas companies’ operations, including investments in new technologies. The Bank offers risk management services to help oil and gas companies to manage risks associated with price fluctuations, supply chain disruptions and regulatory changes. This includes offering hedging products and providing advice on risk management strategies.

Advisory and support for sustainability initiatives that the industry undertakes is also key to ensuring that, as companies navigate complex market conditions, they are more empowered to make informed business decisions. It is important to work with Oil and Gas companies to develop and implement sustainability strategies, such as reducing emissions and increasing the use of renewable energy. This is key to how partners such as Stanbic Bank work to support the sector.

Last but not least, Stanbic Bank stands firmly in support of Botswana’s drive in the development of the sector with the view to attain better fuel security and reduce dependence risk on imported fuel. This is crucial towards ensuring a stronger, stabler market, and a core aspect to how we can play a role in helping drive Botswana’s growth.  Continued understanding, learning, and sustainable action are what will help ensure the Oil and Gas sector is supported towards positive, sustainable and impactful growth in a manner that brings social, environmental and economic benefit.

Loago Tshomane is Manager, Client Coverage, Corporate and Investment Banking (CIB), Stanbic Bank Botswana

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Opinions

Brands are important

27th March 2023

So, the conclusion is brands are important. I start by concluding because one hopes this is a foregone conclusion given the furore that erupts over a botched brand. If a fast food chef bungles a food order, there’d be possibly some isolated complaint thrown. However, if the same company’s marketing expert or agency cooks up a tasteless brand there is a country-wide outcry. Why?  Perhaps this is because brands affect us more deeply than we care to understand or admit. The fact that the uproar might be equal parts of schadenfreude, black twitter-esque criticism and, disappointment does not take away from the decibel of concern raised.

A good place to start our understanding of a brand is naturally by defining what a brand is. Marty Neumier, the genius who authored The Brand Gap, offers this instructive definition – “A brand is a person’s gut feel about a product or service”. In other words, a brand is not what the company says it is. It is what the people feel it is. It is the sum total of what it means to them. Brands are perceptions. So, brands are defined by individuals not companies. But brands are owned by companies not individuals. Brands are crafted in privacy but consumed publicly. Brands are communal. Granted, you say. But that doesn’t still explain why everybody and their pet dog feel entitled to jump in feet first into a brand slug-fest armed with a hot opinion. True. But consider the following truism.

 

Brands are living. They act as milestones in our past. They are signposts of our identity. Beacons of our triumphs. Indexes of our consumption. Most importantly, they have invaded our very words and world view. Try going for just 24 hours without mentioning a single brand name. Quite difficult, right? Because they live among us they have become one of us. And we have therefore built ‘brand bonds’ with them. For example, iPhone owners gather here. You love your iPhone. It goes everywhere. You turn to it in moments of joy and when we need a quick mood boost. Notice how that ‘relationship’ started with desire as you longingly gazed upon it in a glossy brochure. That quickly progressed to asking other people what they thought about it. Followed by the zero moment of truth were you committed and voted your approval through a purchase. Does that sound like a romantic relationship timeline. You bet it does. Because it is. When we conduct brand workshops we run the Brand Loyalty ™ exercise wherein we test people’s loyalty to their favourite brand(s). The results are always quite intriguing. Most people are willing to pay a 40% premium over the standard price for ‘their’ brand. They simply won’t easily ‘breakup’ with it. Doing so can cause brand ‘heart ache’. There is strong brand elasticity for loved brands.

 

Now that we know brands are communal and endeared, then companies armed with this knowledge, must exercise caution and practise reverence when approaching the subject of rebranding. It’s fragile. The question marketers ought to ask themselves before gleefully jumping into the hot rebranding cauldron is – Do we go for an Evolution (partial rebrand) or a Revolution(full rebrand)? An evolution is incremental. It introduces small but significant changes or additions to the existing visual brand. Here, think of the subtle changes you’ve seen in financial or FMCG brands over the decades. Evolution allows you to redirect the brand without alienating its horde of faithful followers. As humans we love the familiar and certain. Change scares us. Especially if we’ve not been privy to the important but probably blinkered ‘strategy sessions’ ongoing behind the scenes. Revolutions are often messy. They are often hard reset about-turns aiming for a total new look and ‘feel’.

 

 

Hard rebranding is risky business. History is littered with the agony of brands large and small who felt the heat of public disfavour. In January 2009, PepsiCo rebranded the Tropicana. When the newly designed package hit the shelves, consumers were not having it. The New York Times reports that ‘some of the commenting described the new packaging as ‘ugly’ ‘stupid’. They wanted their old one back that showed a ripe orange with a straw in it. Sales dipped 20%. PepsiCo reverted to the old logo and packaging within a month. In 2006 Mastercard had to backtrack away from it’s new logo after public criticism, as did Leeds United, and the clothing brand Gap. AdAge magazine reports that critics most common sentiment about the Gap logo was that it looked like something a child had created using a clip-art gallery. Botswana is no different. University of Botswana had to retreat into the comfort of the known and accepted heritage strong brand.  Sir Ketumile Masire Teaching Hospital was badgered with complaints till it ‘adjusted’ its logo.

 

 

So if the landscape of rebranding is so treacherous then whey take the risk? Companies need to soberly assess they need for a rebrand. According to the fellows at Ignyte Branding a rebrand is ignited by the following admissions :

Our brand name no longer reflects our company’s vision.
We’re embarrassed to hand out our business cards.

Our competitive advantage is vague or poorly articulated.
Our brand has lost focus and become too complex to understand. Our business model or strategy has changed.
Our business has outgrown its current brand.
We’re undergoing or recently underwent a merger or acquisition. Our business has moved or expanded its geographic reach.
We need to disassociate our brand from a negative image.
We’re struggling to raise our prices and increase our profit margins. We want to expand our influence and connect to new audiences. We’re not attracting top talent for the positions we need to fill. All the above are good reasons to rebrand.

The downside to this debacle is that companies genuinely needing to rebrand might be hesitant or delay it altogether. The silver lining I guess is that marketing often mocked for its charlatans, is briefly transformed from being the Archilles heel into Thanos’ glove in an instant.

So what does a company need to do to safely navigate the rebranding terrain? Companies need to interrogate their brand purpose thoroughly. Not what they think they stand for but what they authentically represent when seen through the lens of their team members. In our Brand Workshop we use a number of tools to tease out the compelling brand truth. This section always draws amusing insights. Unfailingly, the top management (CEO & CFO)always has a vastly different picture of their brand to the rest of their ExCo and middle management, as do they to the customer-facing officer. We have only come across one company that had good internal alignment. Needless to say that brand is doing superbly well.

There is need a for brand strategies to guide the brand. One observes that most brands ‘make a plan’ as they go along. Little or no deliberate position on Brand audit, Customer research, Brand positioning and purpose, Architecture, Messaging, Naming, Tagline, Brand Training and may more. A brand strategy distils why your business exists beyond making money – its ‘why’. It defines what makes your brand what it is, what differentiates it from the competition and how you want your customers to perceive it. Lacking a brand strategy disadvantages the company in that it appears soul-less and lacking in personality. Naturally, people do not like to hang around humans with nothing to say. A brand strategy understands the value proposition. People don’t buy nails for the nails sake. They buy nails to hammer into the wall to hang pictures of their loved ones. People don’t buy make up because of its several hues and shades. Make up is self-expression. Understanding this arms a brand with an iron clad clad strategy on the brand battlefield.

But perhaps you’ve done the important research and strategy work. It’s still possible to bungle the final look and feel.  A few years ago one large brand had an extensive strategy done. Hopes were high for a top tier brand reveal. The eventual proposed brand was lack-lustre. I distinctly remember, being tasked as local agency to ‘land’ the brand and we outright refused. We could see this was a disaster of epic proportions begging to happen. The brand consultants were summoned to revise the logo. After a several tweaks and compromises the brand landed. It currently exists as one of the country’s largest brands. Getting the logo and visual look right is important. But how does one know if they are on the right path? Using the simile of a brand being a person – The answer is how do you know your outfit is right? It must serve a function, be the right fit and cut, it must be coordinated and lastly it must say something about you. So it is possible to bath in a luxurious bath gel, apply exotic lotion, be facebeat and still somehow wear a faux pas outfit. Avoid that.

Another suggestion is to do the obvious. Pre-test the logo and its look and feel on a cross section of your existing and prospective audience. There are tools to do this. Their feedback can save you money, time and pain. Additionally one must do another obvious check – use Google Image to verify the visual outcome and plain Google search to verify the name. These are so obvious they are hopefully for gone conclusions. But for the brands that have gone ahead without them, I hope you have not concluded your brand journeys as there is a world of opportunity waiting to be unlocked with the right brand strategy key.

Cliff Mada is Head of ArmourGetOn Brand Consultancy, based in Gaborone and Cape Town.

cliff@armourgeton.com

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