‘Copy and paste’ branding
There is a viral infection prevalent along the corridors of power all over Nigeria. Once you get into government, you have a 99% chance of catching it. It’s the copy and paste syndrome. This condition sets your mind in a default ‘copy and paste’ mode, such that your understanding of development begins and ends with trying to replicate what has been done outside the shores of your country. It is a serious problem, and there doesn’t seem to be a permanent cure in sight. The result is that our governments are always trying to copy what others have done, the few times they try to do anything tangible.
In the early 70s, we built the iconic National Arts Theatre. Almost 50 years later, that building has remained one of the most iconic monuments in our country. It looks like a military cap. For this reason, many speculated that the military cap-style design was a deliberate decision by the military government of the day, under the leadership of General Yakubu Gowon. However, we know that the National Theatre was modelled after the Palace of Culture in Varna, Bulgaria. Fast forward to 2014 as the government of Akwa Ibom State constructs the best and currently the most iconic football stadium in Nigeria. It was modelled after the Allianz Arena, the home ground of German football giants Bayern Munich.
There is an interval of almost 50 years between these monuments yet each clearly shows how short-sighted our leadership has been. Why should we spend billions of naira building a monument that is simply an inferior replica of another country’s monument? Every iconic monument is a tourist attraction and has economic value beyond its primary function. But how many people would spend their money to go and see an inferior replica of another monument? You would always want to see the original. That is why it simply doesn’t make economic sense to adopt this kind of approach when embarking on major construction projects.
One of the fundamental elements of branding is differentiation. The first thing you want to achieve is to differentiate yourself from others. All successful brands are built to be unique. Great brands stand out from the pack. But how do you stand out if you’re trying to copy someone else? Unfortunately our leadership are yet to see the correlation between brand building and nation building. The fact is everything is a brand, including nations. To succeed at nation building we must differentiate ourselves from others by offering the world something different. We must add value to ourselves by developing based on those attributes that make us unique as a people. I would always single out Donald Duke for commendation in this regard. He built the Cross River State brand on the platform of tourism because that was a perfect fit with the cultural identity of the people of that state. It is well known that they have the best cuisine in Nigeria. It is also well known that they are very friendly and accommodating. These are essential ingredients for creating a destination brand. Calabar, the state capital was widely acclaimed as the cleanest city in the country. The city was also quite safe and you could walk or drive around at any time of the day or night.
When Tinapa was conceptualized, it was not designed to look like a popular iconic monument somewhere abroad. Rather, it was designed to capitalize on the comparative advantage of Calabar, and the name was uniquely indigenous. I mean, he didn’t call the place “Calabar International Business and Leisure Resort and Free Trade Zone” or something like that. He commissioned the construction of iconic monuments around the city, some of which tell the history of Calabar and the people of Cross River State. Duke clearly understood destination branding.
While it is not a bad thing to learn from what others have done successfully, we must create our own destinations and brand our cities with iconic monuments that are unique to us and which promote our identity as a people. This is one of the reasons Dubai is a top global destination today. They don’t copy. Rather, they look at what has been done, and improve on it while giving it their unique Arabian identity. In fact what makes their iconic monuments so remarkable is that unmistakeable element of Islamic architecture. When they built the tallest building in the world, they didn’t design it to look like the erstwhile tallest building. According to literature about the tower, when viewed from the base or the air, ´Burj Khalifa is evocative of the onion domes prevalent in Islamic architecture’. Although it was designed by the same firm that designed One World Trade Centre, the monument was not designed to look like the World Trade Centre. This is the kind of lesson our decision makers need to learn.
What makes monuments truly iconic is their individuality. If we are going to invest our resources on any monument, then it should reflect our identity. That way, it is truly unique and delivers lasting economic value. The common practice where our people always look to copy and paste simply shows intellectual laziness and irresponsible deployment of public funds. If you have made presentations to our public officials as a consultant or professional you probably know that you don’t make sense to them until you are showing examples in other parts of the world where the idea you are presenting has worked. There seems to be a chronic inferiority complex in us, which makes us think our original ideas are worthless. This is why we have spent more than 30 years building a Federal Capital City, yet there is no single iconic monument there.
Right now, Lagos State has embarked on the most ambitious real estate development project in West Africa, the Eko Atlantic City. While we must commend the vision driving this amazing project, it is already being described as the Dubai of West Africa. It is easy to see why. The project has not been given a unique identity of its own. This must be discouraged. The project must be given a distinctly Nigerian (or rather Lagosian) identity. It is not flattering to describe it as Dubai. You cannot build another Dubai. The moment you position yourself as a replica, you have already created an inferior image. Any replica immediately connotes inferiority and a lack of originality. Given the gigantic and historic size of this project, by all means, please give it a unique identity. No one will come to Lagos to experience something that looks like Dubai, when they might as well go to Dubai.
• Muyiwa Kayode is CEO at USP Brand Management and author, The Seven Dimensions of Branding. Brand Nation is a platform for promoting national development based on the universal principles of branding.