We are all nothing if not aspirational (Another ongoing blog)

News just in indicates that the car touted as the cheapest in the world, the Tata Nano from India, has proved to be a commercial failure. That may come as a surprise to many but I am not at all surprised. No, it is not because I am any cleverer or some king of prophet that can specifically see into the future of brands…


Branding Political Parties

We are living in interesting times. The tectonic plates beneath political parties are shifting violently, pointing to the need for a new orientation for Kenya’s political parties.

Political parties in Kenya have historically been under the tight control of a few powerful men, who bankroll them, choose the leaders they wish to have and basically run them like they would their personal property. With the dawning of the multiparty era, the same rich and powerful politicians got expanded space that allowed them to play musical chairs with political parties. The same men, joined by some women, now form new political parties, jump ship at will and even have the luxury of “belonging” to more than one party at the same time.

Come the new constitution, promulgated in 2010 and with it the Political Parties Act and the scenario has changed radically. The lay of the land now threatens to alter Kenya’s political party landscape completely. The most significant aspect here is that political parties will have to stop being the mobile malleable tribal bandwagons they were. Political parties will have to, by law, turn into national outfits with selling points other than tribal alliances, old boys clubs or disposable vehicles to the highest office in the land. Political parties will in short have to become institutions with long-term visions. Political parties will be unable to avoid becoming brands.

As we live in interesting times, Kenyan political parties find themselves living in strange times. How will political parties navigate the unfamiliar waters that brand building brings to their shores?

Stand For Something (For Everybody)

One of the unwritten widely accepted “rules” of strategic branding is that a brand should stand for something specific. The other “rule” is that brands must choose the market they wish to relate to. The rule about standing for something is probably not too alien to the Kenyan political class. It has however been badly applied in the past with political parties standing for a variety of wrong things such as certain powerful individuals, certain tribes or coalition of tribes, the war against certain politicians, the war against certain tribes, a certain part of Kenya, the quest to remove a certain politician or his tribe from power, and the retrogressive list can go on and on. With the stringent rules in the political parties act, calling for a national outlook for any valid political party, all the retrogressive badges mentioned above must go. It is time for political parties to actually develop real manifestos and real philosophies that can be differentiated. Many current parties have manifestos with different coloured covers. Sadly, that is where the difference ends. Brands must be different and our political parties will have to work very hard to differentiate themselves while avoiding past retrogressive tendencies.

The second “rule” of strategic branding mentioned here is about brands choosing a market or a section of the population, which it can appeal to. Now, this is a challenge.  The challenge is that electoral politics is about numbers; the more the numbers on one’s side the more the likelihood of electoral victory. For this reason, political parties are tempted not to segment the population but to appeal to the entire population. I will not castigate political parties for this approach. I will even be so bold as to say, forget about the rule! I will however point the political parties back to the first rule, “stand for something”. I will also take them back to the point that standing for the narrow tribal or personality based brand positioning will not work in present day Kenya. The law forbids it.

To get the numbers, political parties will need to develop extremely clever brands that will rise above personality cults or tribal leanings. Kenya’s political party brands will need to stand for powerful positions that can appeal to most, if not all Kenyans. These interesting times will get even more interesting when such parties present themselves before the electorate come the high tide of election time.

Be Different

Being different is arguably what branding is all about. This is because the age-old role of brands has been and continues to be differentiating one offering from others. This is done while of course ensuring that one’s particular offering is favoured. Brands are vehicles for achieving ones objectives, be it profit for a businesses, impact for a non-profits or power for political parties.

The human being, while largely a creature of habit, every so often yearns for something new and something different. This poses a challenge for brands in general and political parties in particular. To give an example, the United States of America’s Democratic Party with Barack Obama as its presidential candidate, rode the wave of change to the White House and the party now finds itself in a bit of a fix. It cannot possibly strike that same cord twice in the run up to a second term. Strangely enough, it is the rival Republican Party that is likely to preach change this time around. Even American political parties find themselves living in strange times! All this manoeuvring will be done in an effort appear different to the electorate. Being different, as illustrated using the United States situation is about reading the general mood and seeing what will strike a cord. It is also about seeing what the voters are yearning for and what you appear credibly capable of delivering.

Back to Kenya and we find tens of political parties that, sadly, can only be differentiated by the perceived flag bearer or likely presidential candidate. With a younger, better educated, more informed, empowered and more engaged population, would this kind of differentiation really work? We are in transition so, sadly, it will work to an extent. It will certainly not work for the long term. One could of course quickly retort that one needn’t think long term. Remember though that we are talking about building political parties, which are by definition formidable vehicles for not only the acquisition of power but also the retention of power. One of the reasons Kenya’s political climate has been permanently hot since the multiparty era began is that we have not had any real political party brands. We have had short-term vehicles for the acquisition of power, which get discarded faster than used diapers.

Plan Long Term

Kenya’s history of political parties is riddled with short-term thinking. The Kenya African National Union (KANU) “brought” Kenya’s independence and this heralded the first change for the newly born nation. KANU kept the key persons who “brought independence” and their associates in power and this appeared to be the party’s mission with its positioning being an anticolonial one. After about four decades of independence, it became irrelevant who “brought independence” as there was a sizeable population of voters belonging to a generation that did not experience the colonial era. These voters did not feel grateful to the old order for “bringing independence”. That is partly why the KANU brand failed to connect, waned and subsequently failed in its quest to retain power. KANU had failed to plan long term beyond being the “independence party”. Come the multiparty era and there was a real chance of dislodging KANU and its “real owners”. That is when a variety of vehicles such as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD – all the many FORDS!) and Democratic Party (DP) came to life, all positioning as THE political party that would deliver Kenya from the dragon called KANU. None of the parties really stood out and KANU triumphed in both the first and second multi party elections riding largely on the personal scramble for power among the various opposition heads. The opposition political party brands had failed to position themselves and differentiate themselves for the long-term based on a clear idea that every Kenyan could aspire to. Come 1997 and the clamour for change was at fever pitch. The vehicle that captured this feeling among most Kenyans and positioned itself thus was bound to succeed. The National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) did position itself thus and romped home almost effortlessly. Again, this is a party that did not plan long term beyond the ousting of KANU and it fell apart literally on the day it took power.


Let us fast forward to 2012. Today we find an attempt to fashion more vehicles for rich, powerful persons to ride to the white house on the hill. We find the usual short term planning. With the new constitution in place, we could say that the wind of change is already blowing and no political party brand can claim to be causing it to blow. With the era of the authoritarian imperial president gone, no political party can claim to emancipate us from such slavery. It is time to think beyond short-term opportunities presented by circumstances of the day as political parties have done in the past. It is time to create real political party brands.

Sadly, the truth of Kenya’s current political maturity is that the best political party brand is unlikely to win the next general election. We are not there yet but we need to start somewhere and take a long-term view if we are to have any true political party brands in our beloved country. It is by having real political party brands that we will make the kind of strides a country of Kenya’s stature should be making. We are indeed living in interesting times.

(The article was first Published in Management Magazine)



How Brands Will Kill Social Networking

In a few short years, social networking has become integral to the lives of many. If one is to use Facebook’s statistics, globally the number is nearing 700 million; Africa stands at about 30 million while Kenya stands at just over one million users. To zoom in Kenya the million Facebook users represent the most influential and economically able section of the population. This number continues to grow especially as access to the Internet’s tool of choice, the mobile phone, makes astronomical inroads even in areas considered remote. A recent research by InMobi showed that the Internet is accessed mostly on ordinary mobile phones, not necessarily smart phones. Brands are slowly but surely becoming aware of this fact and beginning to find ways of selling to this audience. You will find brand all over social networks such as Facebook, Hi5, MySpace, Tagged, Bebo, MyYearbook and BlackPlanet. This act of brands considering those on social networks as consumers first is what signals what will be the beginning of the end for social networking as we know it today.

What is social networking?
Social networking is basically taking advantage of new media technologies such as the Internet and mobile telephony networks to carry out virtual social interaction. It has the advantages of ubiquity in so far as one is able to connect and socialize virtually as long as the technology is available between the two parties. This trumps traditional social interaction or networking that was necessarily carried out only when the parties involved in the social process were in the same geographical location. For those who may frown upon social networking would do well to be reminded that only physiological and safety needs rank above social needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, making social needs extremely powerful. Brands are not oblivious to this fact, hence their invasion of social networks. Are they doing it right? Do they have a right to do so? Are they welcome in this space or are they considered an unwanted invading force? We explore these questions below.

The Unwritten Code
Most societies have an unwritten code on how social interaction is carried out. There is etiquette on what is permitted and what is not. With the invasion of new media, new laws have to be “written” to accommodate the new modes of interaction but even as these codes get incorporated, the basics tend to remain the same. One of the prime unwritten rules is that in social interactions, talking business and more so, direct selling of products and services is frowned upon. People attend social functions partly to get away from work and the haggling that business and work life can often become. People want light conversations, humour and do not want to deal with the work life they are escaping from at that time.

Let us now answer the questions posed above. Are they doing it right? Mostly not. Do they have a right to do so? Yes and no. Are they welcome in this space or are they considered an unwanted invading force? Many are considered unwelcome, mostly due to their “invasive” approach. These answers probably give rise to the ultimate question, why? Some answers, which are more of food for thought and probably the basis for some authoritative research, are below.

You Don’t sell at a Social Cocktail
Don’t get me wrong. There is a difference between introducing a colleague as the best management consultant, resulting in her being called up to do some work later and straight up going up to strangers at a cocktail to blurt out a direct pitch. The first is acceptable in a social setting while the second is frowned upon and even pains the professional as desperate or even uncouth.

Brands are used to “talking at”, not “talking with” consumers
Brands, if Naomi Klein of the “No Logo” fame is to be believed are today’s big bullies. She does have a point when one examines how many brands communicate. They have the money, the influence and somehow, the authority to get up on a rather high pedestal and talk at consumers. They will tell consumers how to think, what to feel, what lifestyle to adopt and ultimately what products and services to buy at what frequency and price. Many will not bother to listen probably mumbling to themselves that “the consumer is always right when they agree to what we say”. Fast forward to a social networking or social media setting and we find a big disconnect. The newly empowered consumer becomes potentially as much a transmitter or broadcaster of messages as that big, sometimes obnoxious brand. She is able to both talk and talk back in the manner she sees fit. The brand no longer dominates the communication and is now forced into the unfamiliar territory of “talking with” consumers. As many brands find this “talking with” consumers not really their kind of diet, they will continue to “talk at” consumers, resulting in an unsavory social space that will result in participants in the social network either refusing to interact with this brands or even totally abandoning those social networks that are dominated by brands propagating their old media mannerisms on new media platforms.

People will not play second fiddle, not any more
In cannot be overstated that the human being is largely a social being. The human being wants to be considered a person first; anything else is secondary. A large part of social interaction is marked by give and take in a manner that all parties involved generally feel there is a fair exchange. Brands, and the bigger they get the more they experience this imbalance, tend to behave as though they are “more equal” than the people they are interacting with. Brands therefore find themselves appearing to be “using” or “taking advantage” of consumers due to their sheer size, influence or financial muscle. This could have worked and been accepted in the past but now we are talking about brands in a social space where people will all want to assert themselves to varying degrees depending on their personalities. The point is that people will probably resist attempts to muddy their social space by making them play second fiddle to commercial interests of brands.

The Way Forward
As much as brands have been able to find their way into virtually every sphere of our lives, it is not true that they are absolutely welcome. The consumer still wishes to be seen as more than just a consumer because before they were consumers, they were social beings. The advancing army of brands invading the social space that is become more and more scarce as life gets more hectic is likely to meet a resisting force that will defend the social space with every weapon in its arsenal, including voting with “a click of a button” to avoid spaces that are proliferated by brands. As more consumers vote with their “click of a button” as is currently happening in Europe and the United States, social networking as we know it is likely to take a dive or even die, forcing consumers to revert to the normal person to person social interaction that has gone on for centuries. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

“Social Networking” a Misnomer

Social networking is a both erroneous and misleading term. Why do I say so? The term social implies friendly, informal interpersonal interaction within a community. Now, Facebook, Hi5, Friendster, Linkedin, WordPress, Twitter, Blogspot and now Google+ are all being lumped together under the term social networks. They are really virtual networks which by definition consist of connections between people or within a community devoid of the need to be at the same physical location. These virtual networks are normally facilitated or mediated by technologies such as the internet and mobile telephony.

I will only pick two among the very wide group of virtual networks to prove my point.

First, Twitter is really a “broadcasting” medium as one sends out messages or microblogs as they are sometimes called to a mass of “followers” who can be likened to listeners tuning in to a radio transmission. There is little social here since it is the norm rather than the exception for one to have several strangers as followers. There is also little interpersonal and even less friendship here since messages result in little if any social interaction.

Linked is the other virtual network that is simply not social if we are to agree on the definition above. It connects professionals in their professional capacity. Social interaction here is implicitly frowned upon much like professional interaction including the promotion of ones organization, goods or services is frowned upon in social networks such as Facebook.

To simplify the two examples above, perhaps the easy approach is to liken these virtual networks to a cocktail or party. A social party such as a child’s birthday celebration would usually not involve professional colleagues who do not happen to be friends. Likewise, a cocktail of an official or professional nature would not feature ones social friends unless they also happened to be professional colleagues.

The short of all this is that it is the crossing of these interpersonal lines that will see the decline of virtual networking numbers and activity.

When NOT to Rebrand – Part 1

Here is one of those posts that teeter on the edge that tries to separate good business and good consultant advice. Rebranding projects are the dream of anyone on both the client side and consultant side. For the client, it is a precious line on the resume and many a CEOs career has been built on a successful rebrand. Since rebranding is by nature a rare intervention, it is the lucky few CEOs who find themselves presiding over what can potentially be a career boosting exercise, especially when done well and at the right time. On the consultant side, a rebrand promises a chance to showcase their full set of skills, from the strategic at corporate, product and retail levels, to both visual and behavioural manifestations of the new brand. This promises both excitement and a healthy fee note.

One can safely conclude that it is in “everybody’s” interest to rebrand.

But, is it? Really?

Pepsi is here!

I was at Uchumi Langata a couple of days ago and surprise surprise… Pepsi has muscled its way into what was exclusively Coca-Cola space! What was more surprising is that the Pepsi brands were all placed strategically next to the Coca-Cola brands they are perceived to be equivalent to. Granted, Pepsi is yet to flood the airwaves or storm the retail market, but the writing is now on the wall. Pepsi is here!

There is nothing like competition to up the stakes for any brand. This will be interesting.


The definitions of branding seem to increase by the day as the number of “experts” proliferate the market. This may sound like a negative statement but it actually isn’t. A decade ago, when I started dabbling in the world of branding, brand in this region was nothing more than a fancy mark or badge that distinguished goods and services. The exceptional brands went further to become marks of authenticity or “marks of approval” for the persona bearing or associating with the mark. Now the word brand comes loaded both with meaning and responsibility such that it is not used as loosely as it used to be back then. A brand has indeed become a promise…

Why? What? How?

Are there any other questions one really needs to ask of an issue that do not stem from these three questions?


Just scanning through status updates, posts and comments by my Facebook “friends” this morning (yes, during working hours!) got me thinking. It will be interesting to investigate whether Kenyan brands care for this space. Do they still see it as alien and inconsequential to their brand development? Are they actively engaged in the ongoing conversations, especially those touching on their sector or specific brands? Do they have a strategy for tapping into what has been described as the third largest country, and therefore market, in the world? Have they considered that membership and participation in the world of new media is predicated by a certain social status and an indication of financial well being? This “virtual country” is possibly the richest in the world if one measures their propensity and ability to buy, not necessarily their net worth – that is a different story.


why? why? why?

Could I have found the three most important questions in academic writing? Ask why? Why? Why? Until you can ask no more “why’s”. Then and only then can you have explored the question at hand fully.

Not as easy as it sounds!