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SKC: The Father of Malawi’s Political Marketing?

SKC: The Father of Malawi’s Political Marketing?

In this post, Mallick Mnela attempts to see through the political marketing ingenuity being championed by renowned Marketer, Economist and Politician Dr. Saulos Chilima. Based on his understanding of modern marketing practice, the writer mirrors Chilima’s earned influence and competitive advantage as a result of employing marketing strategies to party politics. He concludes that SKC might be the father of Political Marketing in Malawi.


Yesterday, I rattled some political feathers. I wrote a personal Facebook post seen by some as an absolute endorsement for the candidature of Dr. Saulos Chilima and, by association, Dr. Lazarus Chakwera – both representing the Tonse Alliance.

Chilima: Father of Political Marketing?

Let me come out clearly, in case I didn’t in my earlier personal Facebook post. The message is not some affiliate marketing gimmick. It remains my honest and sincere opinion.

Chilima is an embodiment of a preferred product that would succeed on the market even if the marketing spend associated to it is considered too low or negligible.

Great marketing is not defined by huge budgets. It’s defined by greater buy-in from the greater number of customers: happy, satisfied customers! Likewise in politics, buy-in from potential voters is influenced by an assuring approach to managing their expectations.

Having rejected the indirect request to be apologetic for my Facebook post, I reiterate that SKC is to Malawi what Bakili Muluzi was back in the day: magnetic and charismatic.

Of course, their magnetism and charisma are derived from very different aspects and personal attributes. But my take is if Bakili Muluzi was a “Political Engineer” during his day, then Saulos is a “Political Chartered Marketer”. A closer study to his political approach will reveal traits of a Marketer at work.

Chilima, and by extension, Dr. Chakwera, will benefit more from the optics derived from the energetic appearance, “arrogant” pursuit of justice, never give up attitude and the decision to adjust position on the (Political) Product Life Cycle.

If you are among those that saw his decision to downgrade from being a presidential candidate to being a running mate as a weakness, think again.

The guy was simply being a Marketer: aligning the product portfolio to the market’s needs. And just like every marketing student would learn, being number 2 on the product portfolio is not a problem. It is actually synergistic! You can’t have too many cash cows at once, at least not for a shrinked market of about 3 million voters!

In politics, just like in business, you do not impose products on people, either. Products have their time. If you force two good products, you risk seeing them cannibalize each other thus negatively affecting profitability. The products gain traction then fade without any Return on Investment.

Remember Maluwa soap? The pink tablet? What about the blue tablet? Do you recall Radiant soap that used feature in Moni Magazine? What about the lemon scented Rexona? All these left at some point then the green uFresh and dark green Neema emerged!

Looking at these products and examining the political landscape will tell you a thing or two about political marketing in the Malawian context: political products will not remain relevant notwithstanding their utility!

A tired politician is like a tired product. The market will not like being associated with tired products. It’s all in perception built around the product or within a product portfolio ( i.e. a group of products managed by an entity). I invite you to study Chilima’s marketing prowess.

Indeed, a majority think marketing is about printing T-Shirts, wrappers and all things branded. Others may wish to add well designed posters. Well, marketing is not that simplified.

The sad story is that political marketing is something that has been left to clueless non-experts who, wrongly, equate it to merely printing some branded materials (especially paper posters) most of which a dumped on roadsides instead of being delivered to the people as intended.

I took time to think of all “political products” (election candidates) we have in Malawi. I then ranked them in terms of their marketability as individual products and their marketing orientation as a collective. That’s how Chilima got my highly prized commendation.

SKC is, in my view, an embodiment of a politician who fuses the concepts of psychology, marketing and political science so well to be mistaken for a man merely pushing his luck. He illustrates his successes with metrics. For example, he will tell you how many times he triumphed at court alongside his colleagues.

Just to be brief, find any three of his recent messages, preferably on video. Look at his message and messaging. Look at his dressing. Look at his consistency. Listen to his call to action. Then get any other speeches of any other competing politicians. Put them to a similar litmus test. You will likely realise (like I did) helter skelter messaging, uninspiring body language, inconsistent messaging and a self-serving and sense of entitlement in tone and demeanor.

Sadly, others have resorted to tribalism, ethnicity, religion and regionalism to woo crowds. I digress.

Back to the marketing narrative. A political party can choose to pursue a market orientation, sales orientation, product orientation or marketing orientation. All these are “acceptable” orientations – known to the implementers or not. Just that the strategic importance and utility differs across the continuum.

Bare with me as I bore you a little further on the science of marketing – political marketing to be specific so that you may understand Chilima from the marketing lenses. A market orientation approach seeks to satisfy voters’ needs, that pursuing the sales approach seeks the votes, the product approach party seeks to sell its manifesto as the magic bullet to problems experienced by the voters whereas in pursuit of the marketing orientation, the political establishment will seek to do things that would generate good will and a win-win outcome to both the politicians and the electorate while achieving goals achievable in the other orientations. Actually, this in a more sustainable manner.

So, what would ordinarily happen is that when a political party talks of providing loans, for example, people will be excited. This is an example of a market approach to politics – telling them what they want to hear.

On the loan example, Chilima’s message is in contrast to that of the DPP. He and his Tonse Alliance colleagues are saying: “We need wealth creation capabilities and financial independence not handouts to those who belong to a particular political party”. History makes Chilima’s stance more credible.

This is a marketing orientation. It speaks to a desire to empower, not to disempower through creating dependence as and when it suits those in control.

He has a message: The DPP is in power. It has had the opportunity to distribute loans. Where are the business people that have been created or benefited from the loan schemes to create some semblance of believability?

By quizzing in this manner, Chilima and team are simply illustrating a perceived or alleged failure. By being consistent, they are psychologically implanting a sense of detachment among voters and, in turn, building their own support base.

Essentially what they are achieving is discrediting the DPP. How? It’s like a company producing an underperforming product is touting enhanced capacity to produce a much better product if given more time.

What’s happening here is like marketing a product based on aesthetic differences – Chilima and team are simply saying: “We could be promising the same things as our competitors, but we have a good track record delivering on our promise!”.

This, in my considered professional view, suggests capitalising on their awareness of the DPP’s sales approach to politics where the interest largely rests on making a quick vote (compare with quick sale!).

So, in marketing, when you make a quick sale, all you care about is making the sale not whether the customer will derive benefit or not. It’s all in closing the deal. This is “short termistic” and “unstrategic”.

When pursuing a marketing approach to politics, you utilise marketing intelligence to buttress your narrative.

Chilima’s rhetoric is not without evidence, for the most part. This further builds his credibility. Nothing beats trust and nothing is more effective than placing an opponent in constant defence mode.

He talked about the DPP being “… mafana omwe sangabere. Akadzabera tidzaagwira” (these are kids who can’t rig an election. If they dare, we will catch them).

What happened next? They went to court and that’s when Malawians (thanks to Timothy Mtambo, then HRDC leader) forged a unity of purpose that culminated in the formation of the Tonse Alliance.

Chilima and Chakwera, under Mtambo’s leadership, took to the streets at the height of the Anti-Jane Ansah protests. This created an opportunity to be seen as being together with the people.

It makes more sense now that Chilima’s marketing acumen should manifest and build on past undertakings to forge ahead and help make Dr. Chakwera President.

The synergies between Chakwera, Mtambo, JB, Khumbo Kachale and the others cannot be dismissed.

SKC: Blending to Build Associations

As an individual, when Chilima goes out, he tries to demonstrate his youthfulness and being a normal Malawian. The other day he had to do some push ups in Likuni. He also ate chiwaya Mtakataka fries. Just yesterday, he playfully sat on the edge of is open campaign vehicle.

Some see infantile or desperate behaviour in all this. But this has huge psychological capital. He is acting normal. Debunking myths surrounding leadership in Malawi. He is painting a picture of being normal and leveraging on a sense of belonging.

He also tells a subtle story in no words. His gestures and composure tell a story on the importance of a physically fit leader. His near acrobatic sitting and standing styles tell how an energetic leader is better than a frail and weaker one. He does it without mentioning names or anybody’s health status.

Generally, people want healthy and fit leaders. Of course, in addition to being able to deliver. He has demonstrated he and his team mates have both.

So, in terms of marketing, one can choose any orientation. It will still be marketing. But great (political) marketing is illustrated by the Tonse Alliance with Chilima standing tall.

The smart move is that they have opted for the “marketing orientation”. In this framework, people are empowered to be part of the process.

The Tonse Alliance, truthfully or not, is seen to have been created by a majority who had to put their differences aside to “fix the country”.

On the other hand, the DPP/UDF alliance is a formidable force. However,  it’s a formidable force riddled with legacy issues, chief among them the familial history to the presidency.

Bingu Wa Mutharika (Peter’s brother) was handpicked by Bakili Muluzi (Atupele’s father). And in the current situation, Atupele has been picked by Peter. This, truthfully or otherwise, can be seen as a one good turn deserving another. Is it sheer luck of the two families out of millions Malawian families or they hold leadership genes that most of us lack?

Atupele left St Andrew’s and went to London. He remained there and came to join politics, thanks to his dad. Peter was also comfortably teaching in the US when, at the invitation of his brother, he came to take over the mantle. From friend (Muluzi) to friend (Bingu), then brother (Bingu) to brother (Peter – of course, it was indirectly because Peter had to wrestle the presidency from Joyce Banda following Bingu’s sudden death!). As it stands, one family is seen as returning the original favour to the other.

The two parties (both led by relatives of founders!) have also advanced a narrative bordering on tribes or geographic locations, a development that is now backfiring.

This is the line of thinking that Chilima seems to have ably crafted and continues to hammer in his narrative. He and his team seem determined to continue until people begin to see the need for diversification of leadership in search of a leader beyond the once tried and tested genes.

He is effectively pitting the country against the two families. From a marketing/psychology point of view(s), this has more effect than some people can imagine.

Politics is a game of numbers. The more people are convinced the lesser they will be on the opposing side. An air of success is also magnetic. The greater you inspire hope by achieving the goals you set, the better.

Remember the court successes – one after the other? 6 – 0 margin? Do you see how the DPP machinery has been guns blazing on the defensive against allegations levelled against them by Chilima and team – some of which were later vindicated “live” on the mic?

And what’s more logical: trusting an absent product or an available ones? You can’t market a product and keep it off the shelf. This can easily be construed as a scam. Scandalous!

The UDF candidate Atupele Muluzi is doing well on the campaign trail. The absence of Mutharika, even on matters of running the affairs of the country could prove costly as Chilima and team unleash a lethal marketing campaign on the country’s political landscape.

AAM: Sole Errand Boy?

All these happenings may further build Tonse’s credibility. The team’s efforts may get better and better. People may come closer and closer.

Dr. Chilima has rallied behind Dr. Chakwera thereby creating a synergy that is so energetic that the powers that be in the DPP would need ingenuity laced with enormous amounts of grace to turn the tide ahead of the forthcoming fresh polls.

So, my unpopular views are not based on blind loyalty. I remain far removed from the political establishment. I am merely inspired by how calculating and deep Chilima’s political marketing strategy was conceived and how it is being executed.

Instead of seeing this as granting advantage to the Tonse Alliance, why not embrace it and see if the DPP/UDF can use it to rework their strategy to counteract? Oops! This is another trait of good marketing I almost omitted: listening, listening, listening and listening!

If this is ignored and those in charge of affairs at the DPP opt to continue with the obsolete political marketing strategies of opposing for the sake of it, trust me, they will soon be out of government!

The DPP has been hand twisted to act on occasions more than once. In other instances, those in authority acted in ultra vires to have things their way. This has had reputational damage that cannot be repaired by avoidance or more and more promises. Sadly for them, inaction is providing ammunition to the cunning team of political marketers.

SKC: Joker?

In proper marketing, a marketing-oriented business starts with the customer by finding out what they want (by listening), and then produce the wants and needs for the customers.

In politics, the equivalent of a customer in business is the voter. Chilima and the Tonse Alliance team have made an attempt to grant a sense of ownership of the so-called political revolution to the people.

People are said to be yearning for change. The Tonse team is exposing the DPP’s perceived failures, further creating demand for themselves.

The weakness in the DPP is a proclivity for fighting fire with fire. Surely, the party has good things to show to the world. Sadly, from a political marketing point of view, they seem to have been fire fighting all the way!

Chilima et al. are not only promising change. They have started bringing it. Is (Are) the landmark court ruling(s) not the beginning of change?

Given inability to turnaround government policy from the outside, the opposition has set some objectives seen as necessary for the country’s sustainability, pursued them and in most cases achieved them.

On the other hand, the weakness of the DPP is their pressure to show results to justify extension on the throne amid being pushed to the fence and reduced to defenders. The absence of APM on the frontline of things has also created hardships for the DPP. He is the DPP’s product. The cash cow. But a cash cow absent on the shelves is bankruptcy waiting to happen!

SKC: Cunning, Savvy and Smart Political Marketer (Pic: Chiweza Photography)

This long post is not even adequate to explain the (political) marketing ingenuity at play or the opportunities being missed. But one thing that comes clearly is that using people to merely earn a vote (the sales approach) is no longer relevant. Merely selling the manifesto (the product approach) is irrelevant. Telling what the electorate want to hear (market approach) is no longer enough.

People need to be central to it. They need to feel part of the process to transform the country; not feel like some perennial beneficiaries of the benevolence of the political leaders who get resources from the very people’s taxes.

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