Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Zakumi, oh Zakumi wherefore art thou?

Big up to the street vendors and their fong kong South African flags and car mirror socks at every intersection. I know it’s not a bright idea to write an article about marketing and start off with a line that’s saluting counterfeit goods vendors. I think even the producers of the ‘fly the flag’ campaign owe credit to these entrepreneurs. As part of the SWC hype, the national flag is the most visible South African item and symbol in this period. If you look at it even big brands, including our official representatives to the football spectacle - Bafana Bafana, are playing second fiddle to the rainbow banner. From office blocks to private residences to vehicles to individuals attending a sporting event, you get the national flag either flying high or people wrapped in it.

Looking at the renewed sense of national pride people might be forgiven for saying surely the FIFA soccer world cup ™ has some good spin off for the country. On the contrary though I would like to say innovative local marketing has had a positive spin off for world cup. It is the South African flag that I see flying out there that has contributed extensively to the hype around the World Cup. This leads me to ask: Zakumi, oh Zakumi wherefore art thou Zakumi?

As the official mascot of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Zakumi is supposed to be at the forefront of creating hype around this spectacle, building and mobilizing support for the event. Kept in secrecy and launched with fanfare and termed as “the mascot with an attitude” and described by FIFA as “lively, outgoing, adventurous and spontaneous – a “shrewd little fellow”, Zakumi just became an object only seen on shelves at shopping malls and print adverts. With the countdown to the kick off at less than ten days there is no sight of the little fellow in all FIFA promotion events. In events where he is making an appearance Zakumi fails to live to the title of official mascot and motivate the crowd and create excitement for the event. In fact one would even think that for a “shrewd little fellow” he was told to behave. I am yet to see him carrying a vuvuzela which has also become a symbol of sport, especially soccer, in South Africa.

Mascots are supposed to be the iconic figures that set the event or team apart from the rest. They motivate the crowd, they please the children and add something to the event or the team that is very special.

I remember how the 2008 Beijing Olympics used mascots such as Fuwa and Lele who were an instant hit with children. Some of the clips I saw were of adults interacting with these fluffy and fury symbols. Our Zakumi seems to be a little shy of emulating what his kin are doing or did for other events and sporting codes. This is why I take my hat off in salute of the street vendor with his cheap version of the South African flag. They have managed to keep the world cup buzz alive. I take off my hat to individuals like Wendy Ramokgadi and his innovative ‘Diski dance’, a dance craze that integrates South African national points as well as local football styles in a clever choreographed routine. I must say I am yet to see the “young” Zakumi doing the Diski. I salute the innovative marketers who are die hard supporters of local soccer teams.

On the flip side one would note the stringent marketing rules that FIFA have used to barricade the world cup. Yes the football spectacle is a FIFA brand and as the custodians they should lay down the law and crack the whip where there is interference with their product. At the same time in order to ensure complete brand success or event success, the brand owners should also try and find brands on which to leverage on. In the case of the FIFA World Cup mascot, instead of creating Zakumi the mother body could have utilised the current local football human ‘mascots’ or number one supporters as they are called.

Nale ‘Mzion’ Mofokeng (Pirates), Botha Msila (Celtics), Robert ‘Mzekezeke’ Nkosi (Sundowns), Freddie ‘Saddam’ Maake (Chiefs), Gladys ‘First Lady’ Gailey (Ajax), Colin Nxumalo (Cosmos), and Ivan ‘Nyoni’ Geldart (Swallows) have become synonymous with the teams they represent and in a way have become the unofficial-official spokespersons. A local beer brand has used these mascots in getting supporters to rally behind the national squad and it’s working wonders if you ask me. What’s funny though is that during the national tour of the world cup trophy I spotted some of these mascots doing television interviews and no Zakumi on site, talk about sending a boy to do a man’s job.

Going back to the boardroom after the 2010 event FIFA will have to sit and take stock of how a marketing strategy should not be regarded as a universal tool that can be unpacked after every 3 years, dusted and applied to any situation and any country. For me and my clique of armchair critics, Zaka-zaka (Zakumi) was a marketing idea completely off the mark, so much for FIFA general secretary telling the world that “we are certain we will have a lot of fun with him in the lead-up to and during the FIFA Confederations Cup and the FIFA World Cup”. So in building and marketing your brand in a foreign place, make sure not to make the mistake of writing off other brands that you can leverage on.

To the street vendors and their popular wares, to the hip and happening ‘Diski’ dancers, to the maverick soccer supporters in their funny and yet colourful club costumes, to you I take my hat off for teaching the world South African Marketing 101. The type of marketing that says: go to the people, live with them, learn from them, start with what they have and build on what they know.

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