Ethiopia – a lesson in public brand sentiment

2012-05-12 11:40

Can I have your business card?”

Not an unusual ­request when travelling, but when you are in the dusty village of Lalibela in Ethiopia and the ­request comes from a 10-year-old, it is somewhat surreal.

In fact, most of the surreal experiences as I travelled through Ethiopia came from young children.

Even in this rural village – a growing tourist destination thanks to the ancient rock-hewn churches that sit below ground level – the children ­engage with tourists in English.

The village may be poor, but these kids are savvy. One or two go as far as giving you their “business card” – an email address scribbled on to a piece of paper.

They don’t want money, they say, but would prefer books, and the email exchange is a means of finding someone who just might be coerced into sending books back to them.

When asked why they want books, they say books can be passed to the rest of the family. There’s an innate understanding of spreading knowledge and the benefits that it will bring.

When asked what they eventually want to grow up to be, the answers are again surprising.

Dream careers range from a tour guide (understandable given the environment), to an engineer and even a vet (the reasoning for this choice was because he felt the animals were not treated ­humanely in the village).

I later discover that the children have been specifically schooled by the local authorities not to ask for or accept money from tourists, so this is somewhat of a shrewd alternative to tug at the heart strings.

But still, it shows initiative.

This is a far cry from the stereotypical images everyone sees when you mention Ethiopia: poverty, famine, Aids and starving children with flies crawling over their faces.

Yes, it is a poor country, but it is not pity they want or need. Those images are ­almost three decades old, but are seared into our minds thanks to well-meaning rock stars and media.

Today tourism is on the rise, but it is an immense challenge. Ethiopia is desperate to shrug off the embedded perception that it is the basket case of Africa. It is one of the continent’s ancient spiritual hubs and the home of the African Union. The ­culture is rich and diverse, the geography breathtaking and the people warm, but it is an uphill battle to ­convince people otherwise.

In marketing terms, this is known as negative brand sentiment.

Although it usually refers to consumer attitudes towards retail brands, it is just as important for a county’s ­image because reversing a negative brand sentiment takes decades – as Ethiopians have discovered.

South Africa should be well ­advised to take note. Brand sentiment is a fluctuating currency.

The 2010 soccer World Cup gave us a healthy injection of positive brand sentiment, but it’s not something you can bank indefinitely.

 Just this year, South Africa has been downgraded by several international ratings agencies.

A combination of strikes, civil unrest, unemployment and crime has seen to it that our growth prospects have stalled, or are sliding – at least in the eyes of the ­international business community.

Even if there are counter-arguments for the negative perceptions, it’s the negativity that sticks and lingers.

The transient nature of our ­positive brand sentiment is brought home by these very same children in the village.

“Where do you come from?” they inevitably ask. When I reply South Africa, they immediately chorus, “Waka Waka” or “Bafana Bafana”.

It feels good that the residue of World Cup goodwill remains, but the sense of pride on hearing the name Bafana Bafana is awkward: we know in our heart of hearts how ­devalued that currency has become.

In two years, Brazil will host the World Cup and the spotlight will shift to another developing nation, also eager to boost its positive brand sentiment.

It too will have the opportunity to dine out on its Waka Waka ­moment for a few years and then get a second opportunity to top up on positive brand sentiment when it hosts the Olympics in 2016.

As the baby of Brics, South Africa will need to work doubly hard to cultivate positive brand sentiment when the eyes of the world are elsewhere.

For us the scales between positive and negative brand sentiment are now balanced – somewhat precariously.

It’s not a tipping point any country wants to be at because once scales tip, those negative perceptions can become so ingrained that it eventually turns into a burden the next generation has to carry.

Just ask the children of Lalibela.

» Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit ­fluxtrends.com

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