Friday, March 27, 2009

The re-branding Nigeria needs

A FORTNIGHT ago, most of the nation's dailies reported an attempt by the Federal Government to embark on another image shoring blitz ala the much-trumpeted 'heart of Africa project' that was the 'baby' of the previous administration. Reading between lines (which was something I was sure I did ), the Yar'Adua administration intends to deviate from Obasanjo's image laundering project in order to cut the picture of an administration intent on going about its own business and not kow-towing to the whims and caprices of the man from Ota. In one word, the administration intends to Re-brand Nigeria on a grander and more effective scale.

Branding has become such a mantra these days; it is fast becoming misunderstood. Branding, far from being a buzzword aimed at fixing any problem that is image-based, is a procedure aimed at entrenching certain beliefs about the brand in the prospect's mind. It connotes an attempt to create a lovely picture in the mind of the prospect about the brand. In other words, branding is first a careful and orderly process before it becomes a marketing appeal. The brand must have 'core values' which is in sync with those of the prospect or those which the prospect can relate with. Branding goes beyond the advertisement: An art that attempts to force the product into the mind of the prospect. A good brand does not necessarily have to shout from the rooftops to be heard, a good brand is self-selling and self- appealing. A good brand needs no hard sell.

'The heart of Africa' project even though laudable in its motive, violated all known laws of good branding. There is no gainsaying the fact that Nigeria needs more than a campaign designed by some agency to shore up what is internally and externally a blurred image. Grandiose campaigns aired on satellite television may appear to be effective on face value but could be counter-productive. The jury is still out on the gains derivable from the 'heart of Africa' project. But every day prospective investors shy away from becoming part of the Nigeria project, or we watch the news channels to witness another foiled attempt by our youths trying to get into Europe through the back door; any time we go through foreign tabloids to read about how badly the international community views this country and its citizens, we wonder if this country needs more than a re-branding to attract the gains of the free world.

There is a credibility crisis in the country's leadership at the moment and that is putting it very mildly. Apart from those who swoon around the corridors of power at all levels of government and their beneficiaries, it is debatable if the citizens of this country believe in their government. If we really intend to re-brand Nigeria, this would be the best place to start. For sometime now, the citizenry has become used to believing that what the government says is different from what it does. As one military regime gave way to another and one flawed election after another brought in a leadership without any moral substance, the basis for trust and accountability gradually flew out the window, giving way to cynicism and an utter distrust for whatever came out of government.

Add to this the ineptitude and an inability of government to fix anything, and you get the picture of a people completely at dissonance with the rulership. This widespread cynicism has become so endemic that it would take more than a mere 'academic re-engineering' of brand Nigeria to put things aright. Credibility is one of the pillars on which branding rests. If the government is really interested in re- branding the country, then a conscious effort must be made to restore trust among the citizenry. All forms of corruption which have over time contributed to the devaluation of brand Nigeria must be done away with. Credible elections at all tiers of government would also enhance the brand value of 'product' Nigeria.

Infrastructural decay in Nigeria is legendary. A near comatose health care system, a non existent railway system, deplorable state of inter-state roads and poor state of public schools would remarkably increase the brand equity of the country in the eyes of the international community and at home. The government has to show that things can work in Nigeria beyond the endless cabinet re-shuffling and jumbled portfolio designations. Outside of our borders, the perception that nothing works in Nigeria is so entrenched that it would take more than an ill-fated image laundering campaign to correct same. A year ago, I found myself in the unenviable position of trying to woo a friend to set up a small-scale business in the country. He acceded to my constant pressuring as we chatted on a social networking site and flew into the country almost unannounced. He wanted a detailed view of the Nigerian business terrain and felt it would not be a bad idea to visit the middle belt region which had a certain proximity to Lagos. We rode off to Benin in a private car at 7am and got into Edo state at 3pm. The roads were in a bad shape and the traffic situation left us perspiring embarrassingly in the heat. We got into Lagos the next day with my friend spending a week with me. He took off to England and never returned. I thought he was enjoying himself while his sojourn lasted, but with the benefit of hindsight, I now know he never enjoyed the power interruptions and the agony we had to go through each day on the roads as we embarked on feasibility studies.

It is common knowledge that our hospitals have for a long time remained mere consulting clinics. Whenever I pay a visit to my cousin who is a doctor at the university of Calabar teaching hospital, we would discuss to no end on how the hospital had become something of an eyesore. And while the president and a privileged few can disappear out of the country for medical reasons, the nation's healthcare situation is groaning under the weight of poor management and a dearth of basic equipment. As the nations of the world brace up to enter into a new age of medicine hinged on biotechnology, we are still groping with how to stock our hospitals with the basest of equipment. Little wonder, brand Nigeria is gradually eroding right under our noses.

Nothing taints 'brand Nigeria' like our epileptic power supply. No nation can be truly called 'industrialized' without a steady power supply. Our 'big brother of Africa' moniker which we delude ourselves with daily is under threat as we watch 'smaller' African countries in the west coast take giant strides towards economic boom while our generator driven economy takes several steps backwards. Branding Nigeria? Come on!!! If we can fix the power situation in this country, our brand equity would take further notches up the scale. Power is such a catalyst for economic growth that it is surprising that regime after regime boast about an illusory 10,000 megawatts and yet cannot achieve a paltry 2000 megawatts before their tenure expires. The world knows we are still struggling with power generation and some folks in the industrialized nations of the world still wonder if power outages are a possibility.

One of the enduring images of 'the heart of Africa' commercial was that of a smiling president Obasanjo well bedecked in his babariga with the visuals of some serene places in the country giving the picturesque feeling of a tourist haven. True, Nigeria's tourism is not completely dead yet thanks to the efforts of a few state governments, but it would be self delusionary to think the watching world did not realize that side by side those images are suburbs bearing the mark of under-development, the militancy in the Niger Delta, one of the lowest per capita income in the world, high level of insecurity and a people bruised from the effects of failed government policies.

While the relevant government agencies grapple with the idea of another image laundering blitz at tax payers' expense, it is worth noting that marketing and brand experts are deviating from traditional branding practices to what is now called 'experiential' branding and marketing; which is what can be seen and felt. There is a limit to how much advertising can project a brand. Sound branding practices are hinged on positioning and recourse to gaining a considerable mileage in the prospects' mind. The real brand ambassadors on whose shoulders the bulk of 'brand Nigeria' falls upon is disenchanted with the state of affairs of their country and is jetting out in droves for pastures green. Wherever and whenever you meet a Nigerian, the first thing you are most likely to hear is that righteous indignation with the state of being of the Nigerian nation.

That is the Re-branding the country needs. A re-branding that would first attempt to tackle the myriad socio-economic challenges facing the country. Only then can the Commander-in-Chief afford to look at the cameras with a grin and a throaty laughter and all the babariga in Kano and say 'welcome to Nigeria, the heartbeat of Africa'.