ESSAY | Here, comrades, is where ‘Brand Zimbabwe’ will either rise or fall

A visitor waves the flag at Mtarazi, Nyanga: Zimbabwe has a bad image, but has a lot going for it

By Ranga Mberi

A few days ago, a friend who works for the government invited me to attend the launch of “Brand Zimbabwe” in Harare.

What was this about?

At the entrance, I got an orange pamphlet. It began by saying “over the last three decades Zimbabwe has faced a number of political, social and economic challenges including political instability” and that “the government and the People of Zimbabwe believe that the current status quo is undesirable and needs to change and give way to a more united, stable and prosperous Zimbabwe.”

Fair point. So, is anybody doing anything about it, I wondered?

It went on: “In the coming in if the second republic, an effort has been made to change the image of the country with the implementation of political and economic reforms aimed at improving governance and creating an environment where the economy can grow and business can thrive.”

Not the best branding ‘excellency’: a banner at the Brand Zimbabwe launch


So, Brand Zimbabwe is the start of a process of consultation on how Zimbabwe should be branded.

The exercise will involve “Zimbabweans from all walks of life”, the pamphlet said. Presumably not just the ZANU PF supporters who were packed into the hall. It will be a “nation’s soul search exercise for self-discovery”.

Well, as a lifelong card-carrying member of the “people from all walks of life”, there is no harm in diving right into this “national soul search”.

I will start in Chile.

After Chile got rid of Augusto Pinochet, the US-backed dictator who ruled from 1974 to 1990, the country set about trying to rebrand itself.

Chile spent a lot of money. Once, they dragged a giant iceberg halfway around the world to the World’s Fair in Seville, 1992. In the end, what worked wasn’t such stunts.

Jorge Cortes, a digital marketing manager who has worked on Chile’s brand, put down Chile’s successful rebrand to two factors: a long-term strategy, and getting citizens on board.

“It is essential to strengthen Brand Chile inside the country in order to effectively promote it abroad,” he said in one interview.

The Chileans get it. We don’t. At least not yet.

Here are a few points that those who will drive Brand Zimbabwe will need to figure out, before we all waste time and money.

One: “People from all walks of life” must believe in Brand Zimbabwe

“Each Chilean is responsible for this great task and is called to become an ambassador of the country’s unique and positive qualities,” Cortes found.

That’s just it. Many governments, including ours, spend millions paying lobbyists to look good. But the biggest brand ambassadors are us, the “people from all walks of life”.

When someone buys into a brand and it works for them, they are going to promote it, and defend it.

Once, when there was national crisis – a debilitating shortage of Cerevita – I am not ashamed to reveal that I may or may not have engaged in a WWE Royal Rumble with a lady in a Pick n Pay aisle for the last box of Choco Malt. Sorry, ma’am.

Also, I’ve been known to intervene with acts of targeted violence when people slander Mazoe. Why? Because I believe in those brands.

If Zimbabweans feel that Zimbabwe – and its government – is working for them, they don’t need to be whipped into marketing it. They have ownership and loyalty.

As Joshua Nkomo said, on July 7, 1983: “The people themselves will protect their government if they have full trust in it.”

Two: Government comms must be credible

In Zimbabwe, especially online, facts are often caught somewhere between two extremes.

On one hand is government and its Cold War era propaganda. On the other hand, is a coterie of digital warriors who get a heat rash at the sight of the slightest positive content about Zimbabwe.

Why is this so? Well, of course while many may point out that negativity is good content for some, there is a bigger problem; State propaganda.

Now, let’s be real. Just about every country on earth does propaganda. We just happen to do ours badly, really badly. It is too obvious, and too blunt. A case in point: how State media ran the “mega deals” stories from 2018. They could have covered projects calmly, as economic stories, and still reflected well on the government. Instead, they overblew it to the extent that even prospective investors were burnt, and any legitimate news of investment today is laughed at.

Today, when something genuinely good happens, there’s counter fodder to discredit it.

Recently, John Basera, the Agriculture Secretary, posted aerial pictures of wheat fields under centre-pivot irrigation. He was illustrating the point that Zimbabwe has planted more wheat this year. The reactions? “This is not Zimbabwe…why are you just googling images from the internet”.

The impressive pictures were, in fact, from Zimbabwe.

Not all who doubt such pictures do so out of malice. For some reason, government platforms, including State media and officials, often use foreign pictures to illustrate local projects; a dam in Japan being used to show the Gwayi Shangani Dam, a road in Nigeria used for the Masvingo highway. It’s a puzzle why they do this, when local images are just a click away.

So, when Basera, or any other person, posts pictures or news of any little progress, they must face a digital firing squad.

Now, if you’re going to rebrand your country, you’re going to do it with honesty, and a high degree of diligence. We have enough good content about Zimbabwe. We don’t need to borrow it. We just need to package it better. Be credible.

Three: Does Government itself believe in Brand Zimbabwe?

At the Brand Zimbabwe launch, I listened to the Information Minister, Monica Mutsvangwa, give a great speech.

“When you travel abroad, they don’t care if you are Zanu PF, CCC or MDC. They just look at your passport,” she said. Great, I thought. Now, if only this government believed this and lived it.

Now, how many times have you seen salespeople trying to sell a product, and you can tell they are just there for the job? They barely believe in the vegetable samosas they are selling. I use veggie samosas as an example, because they are, quite frankly, a waste of everybody’s time. Nobody with working taste buds wants to see those.

When I see government communicators at work, or read what they say in the papers, I get a sense they hardly believe in what they are selling.

Our leaders wave their fists in the air and drape themselves in flags, but they are the least patriotic lot you will ever see. Their love for all things foreign – from cars to healthcare – is legendary.

They travel, a lot. How they travel across Africa, seeing progress around us, and still not feel even an itch to do better for their homeland is a tragic mystery. Months ago, I saw a government official in the crowd at the world-class Diamniadio Olympic Stadium, recently built in Dakar, Senegal. I wondered what he thought, coming back home to a country with no working stadium.

Our leaders must want our county to work, and they must do so to the point of desperation. It must keep them awake at night when our people are being humiliated next door by insecure xenophobes.

A nation that stopped believing

Once, rugby coach Pieter De Villiers, when he was coach of the Zimbabwe Sables, was asked what areas he felt the boys needed to work on the most. It wasn’t the lineouts, our backs, or our work at the breakdown; “85% of my players play in Zimbabwe; they have low self-confidence.” This wasn’t just about the rugby players. It was about Zimbabweans, in general.

There’s a reason why we are this way. It is not our fault. Sadly, it seeps into many parts of our national being; from how we consume information – we believe only the worst, even when it’s fake – to how we perform on the sports field. We take any insults thrown at our country uncontested, even from the ashiest characters, just because we have come to believe that we deserve only the least.

This is one of many psychological walls that we will need to break down to begin internal rebranding, and it will take more than mere marketing.

I hope “Zimbabweans from all walks of life” will take part in the Brand Zimbabwe process. I hope it is open to all, including the many creatives who are bursting with ideas on how to promote their country.

What must come first is honesty about what our “national brand” is right now. For that, we must return to Chile, in an earlier era.

According to the writer Gabriel Marquez, once, on the street, Chile's leftist President Allende was confronted by a protester carrying the placard: "Chile is shitty country. But MY country." 

That is a mix of brand ownership and an honest brand audit. With that, must come delivery to the brand ambassadors – we the people.

As Cortes, the Chile brand manager, says, one of the reasons rebranding worked for Chile is that it created a country that works for its people. It was not the branding dollars that did the trick: “Perhaps Chile’s profile has improved simply because it has gone from a military dictatorship to a successful and open democracy with a growing economy…”

You do not repaint a broken product, wrap it in new branding, and then try to sell it. No. You fix it first. Then rebrand it. No amount of PR ever saved a perpetually defective product. Eventually, the market always finds out.

This, comrades, is where Brand Zimbabwe rises and falls.


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