Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mr Opiyo lives in a fantasy world.

In Pirates & Fraudsters, Gordon Opiyo attempts to explain why Kenyans engage in economic sabotage (Kenyans never respect brands which is why newspapers are doing poorly, Daily Nation, Wednesday October 10, 2012). Mr Opiyo's premise is that the same motivations that led to millions of Kenyans purchasing and using counterfeit phones are at the root of why Kenyan newspaper companies are yet to sell dailies at their true potential. Mr Opiyo attempts to conflate two very different ideas: brand-building and consumer-protection. Let us begin with the latter.

When the Communications Commission of Kenya took the hugely unpopular step of switching off hundreds of thousands of counterfeit mobile phones, it was an indictment against the CCK, the Kenya Bureau of Standards, the Anti-Counterfeit Agency and the Kenya Revenue Authority for failing to protect Kenyans from the influx, lawfully or otherwise, of the counterfeit phones in the first place. It may appear that though many of the dubious handsets bore the names of established companies, the principal motivation of the Kenyans who bought them was their affordability; brand loyalty came second place to cost. this explains why the influx of cheaper Chinese-made mobile phones has almost decimated the market for brand-name counterfeits of similar price. Even with the relatively lower duties charged on mobile phones a significant proportion of the Kenyan market cannot afford genuine branded phones. Their reliance on cheaper knock-offs will not end with the CCK's Big Switch-off, mark my words.

Regarding the question of brand-building, Mr Opiyo surely must agree that even the main Kenyans newspapers have lost whatever popularity they might have enjoyed in the 1980s and early 1990s and one of the factors that has affected these brands is the cost of a daily today. Before Kenya's economy went into the shitter in the dark days of the Saba Saba riots, when a hundred shillings went a very long way, not only were daily newspapers cheap, they were well-edited and their Op-Eds, the bread-and-butter of the brands, were extremely well written, able to easily compete with global giants on quality and relevance. That is not the situation today. At at least 50 shillings for a copy, there is an elite few that has the capacity and wherewithal to purchase more than one daily newspaper every day. The quality of the papers has also deteriorated drastically. In addition to becoming outlets for self-serving politicians, the quality of reporting and writing is such as can only be expected of secondary school students, perhaps not even that; secondary school writers have the opportunity to improve.

Newspapers are no longer seen as brands that require the adoration and support of their readers; they are treated exactly as other brands in Kenya that are out of the reach of the man on the street, including imported branded shoes, clothes, watches, movies, music, books, mobile phones and other consumer durables. They are treated disdainfully such that many who cannot afford their frequently exorbitant prices make do with cheap facsimiles that could pass off for the genuine article. Instead of Mr Opiyo's whingeing lament over the death of brands, especially newspaper brands, he should look at a bigger picture in which the pool of brand consumers is small and shrinking. He should be proposing strategies for increasing the number of consumers who can pay the price his beloved newspaper companies are charging. It is the only way he can protect the brand against the onslaught it is facing today.

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