When I first entered the world of marketing, shortly after Madagascar separated from Gondwanaland, brands were every company’s most precious possession. Like your own children, you would never dream of selling them to anyone else; they stayed with you until either you, or the brands, died. Things began to change around the 1980s, when for the first time marketers were able to put a monetary value to their brands, and as soon as they did that the financial vultures saw the potential to cash their brands in, and trouser a tidy little sum. This new opportunity was particularly pleasing to the bean counters because a lot of the brands’ value was accounted for by “intangibles” – things like goodwill and reputation – which meant that they didn’t actually appear to be parting with all that much in exchange for that nice fat cheque.
Before long, trading brands was commonplace. Sellers were able to realise some value from their marketing investments, and buyers could take a short cut to market share instead of all that painstaking brand building from scratch. And throughout, the bulk of the money that changed hands was in recognition of the elusive intangible dimension that is the hallmark of all strong brands.
Nations are brands too. And like brands, a lot of a nation’s strength is derived not from its physical resources, but from the way its people feel about the country. Their pride, their sense of belonging, their patriotism. Their nationhood. And this intangible brand strength can be quantified for nations in much the same way as it is done for regular brands. A few years back Professor Roger Sinclair, founder of brand valuation consultancy BrandMetrics, calculated that Brand South Africa (just the goodwill, remember) was worth around R400 billion, and more recently nation-branding expert Simon Anholt has put the figure at R500 billion. So we have some consensus here.
Now here’s my Big Idea. If brands can be bought and sold, and if nations are brands too, why can’t we buy and sell nations? Well, one particular nation, to be precise. Zimbabwe. Why don’t we mobilise the international donor community to stump up enough money to buy Zimbabwe, and then run the country like any other brand would be – with professional managers applying sound commercial principles to increase the value of the asset, and with a clear exit strategy, consisting of a sale back to the people of Zimbabwe? Then we could fire Mugabe and his cronies in a heartbeat, just like we would fire corrupt and incompetent employees in any normal business.
But hang on, I hear you say, you can’t buy something that’s not for sale. But who says Zimbabwe’s not for sale? Any marketing or brand expert will tell you that brands are only nominally owned by the companies that market them. The true owners are the people who buy the brands, who interact with them, who have a relationship with them. Coca-Cola is only a brand because consumers have made it so; they’ve made it “their Coca-Cola”. So who makes Zimbabwe a brand? Who has the true relationship with Zimbabwe? Not those cynical pillagers in Government House, Harare, that’s for sure. The true owners of the Zimbabwe brand, and therefore of Zimbabwe itself, are the oppressed and distressed millions for whom the international (and especially southern African) community appears to have no regard. Offer them a chance to sell, for just a few years, the Zimbabwe brand to a team of expert managers who will undertake to put the brand back on its feet, and they’ll knock you down in their rush to sign. Not only do they receive an immediate cash injection from the sale, straight into their pockets, but they get to reacquire the brand, in an unrecognisably stronger state some years later, no doubt at a handsome discount to its true value. It’s a no brainer.
So what would all this cost? Well, I’m no financial wizard (my own personal objective is still to get my net assets up to zero), but I reckon it’s affordable. Here are my back-of-a-beermat calculations. Zimbabwe’s GDP was estimated (according to the CIA World Fact Book) at $26bn for 2007. That valued the Zim economy at about 10% of that of South Africa at the time, although it has undoubtedly plummeted downwards since. So if we assume (generously) that Zimbabwe’s brand strength is relatively on a par with South Africa, then it should be worth about 10% of what has been calculated for SA. That makes the Zim brand (intangibles only) worth about R40 billion. A safe rule of thumb is that the full value of a brand is actually about double its intangible value. So that’s R80 billion, or about $10bn, as a fair price to pay for Zimbabwe.
Now compare that figure with some of the sums being distributed by philanthropic donors, albeit not solely in our direction. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has handed out more than $13bn since 1994, and Warren Buffett has recently handed over a cool $30bn more for Mr and Mrs Gates to play with. Foundations like Kellogg and Ford think nothing of donating hundreds of millions of dollars, year in, year out. And in 2009, not a good year for donations, the top 10 American philanthropists alone handed out almost $3 billion. So the absolute amount needed is not beyond reach. And since it would mean an immediate windfall of about $1,500 per adult Zimbabwean (several times the average income per annum per head), it would surely receive a landslide endorsement from the people who count – the ordinary abused citizens of that once magnificent, and potentially rejuvenated, country.
OK, so there may be one or two little administrative issues to sort out along the way. But it’s been done before (the USA’s purchase of Alaska from Russia springs to mind), and down here in southern Africa we’re good at making a plan. So let me be the first to lob in a hundred bucks to set the ball rolling.