Out of Africa: Brand Mash-Up by Hand
Thursday, June 11, 2009
A recent trip to the recycling market in Bamako, the capital of Mali, was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in a long time...visually, olfactorily, but most of all acoustically, as the market announces itself long before one actually sees it. The cacophony of sounds comes courtesy of hundreds of blacksmiths hammering, scraping, melting and polishing every bit of material they retrieve from carefully dismantled car bodies and other branded materials.
Not surprisingly, the soundtrack only provides the auditory background to a jaw-dropping number of stories waiting to be told. But, given my professional background, the temptation is just too great to review some of the market scenes and finds from a brand perspective, particularly because they are further proof that the digital and the physical environments in which brands exist are indeed mirror worlds. Much of what happens now in online social networks is also underway in our off-line marketplaces.
Creating new meaning and revenue through brand capital transfer
When it comes to consumer goods, such as cars, the capital they represent is real and tangible, even once the brand insignia have been melted or hammered away (talk about brand malleability!) Just as consumers in industrialized countries borrow, recycle or reinterpret brand capital and meaning through Photoshop manipulations or iMovie mashups, the blacksmiths in Bamako do the same, channeling their newly shaped creations throughout the physical marketplace. The big difference is that it’s not a game but a question of livelihood -- the brand capital creates revenue for the blacksmiths and their families.
Relinquishing brand ownership and control
There are heated debates around brand ownership and control in the digital realm. In the Bamako market, branded Coke signs are no less IP as the logoes plastered on the 500+ consumer-created Coke Facebook sites. Yet Coke no more controls what the blacksmiths will shape from their IP, be it cookie form or cookware, than they do the fan pages of their digital counterparts. Interestingly, unlike the Facebook sites, Coke will likely never know or care about (or learn from) the blacksmiths' creations.
Uncovering hidden markets, consumers and their needs
Anecdotally, Bamako is considered the only one of its kind in Africa. Yet, when brands reference their global market presence, few likely consider anything but the primary, high-yielding populations and markets. That is understandable, although the blacksmiths and families are aware, increasingly connected consumers too, and they work with a range of brands everyday, turning them into items that are culturally relevant and useful to their buyers. Anthropological research may well yield an interesting insight or two.
Respecting the “messiness”
I watched the man, pictured below, laboring over an aluminum pot for about 15 minutes. While doing so, I stood in the fumes coming from his makeshift fireplace where he melted the aluminum for his next piece. I almost fainted just standing there in the heat and fumes, yet was completely taken with the poetry of his every move!
While my first impulse was to question the work conditions and the brands’ social responsibility towards these blacksmiths, I quickly realized: if brands came in and “cleaned” up the working conditions, “IP” violations and other issues, the market’s “free-wheeling” spirit and the authentic ways in which people engage with the brands would be gone forever. Sound familiar?
To sum it all up, I would like to quote my Malian friend Moise: “Perfection arises from taking the best from different sources and combining it in new and unexpected ways...”
Kan ben sini, recycling market!
Photographs: ©2009 Manon Herzog All Rights Reserved.