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The package is now the product

Mike Tyson was once the world’s most feared boxer. In a remarkable period from 1985 to 1989, he annihilated all comers and was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

From 1990 onwards, unfortunately, Tyson began devoting himself to a life of excess. During one 33-month period in the 1990s, he is believed to have spent nearly US$ 4.5 million on cars and motorcycles. He spent almost US$ 400,000 on pigeons and cats. At one stage, he was squandering close to US$ 100,000 on clothes and jewellery every month. His life and career went into free fall. He started losing regularly, and went through a messy divorce. He was convicted of rape and imprisoned.

He is estimated to have made close to US$ 400 million in his career, but was forced to declare bankruptcy recently, at one stage owing his creditors US$ 50 million. He now regards his life as a complete waste. “I thought life was about acquiring things”, he says.

Mike Tyson is just an extreme manifestation of a growing problem. He had the talent and the determination to succeed in his career, and did. But then something happened. Seemingly troubled by low self-esteem, he began going on sprees: sex, shopping, and drugs. He began paying more attention to the trappings of success than to the things that generated it. Fancy cars, mansions, clothes, jewellery and sensual excess became his hallmark. He neglected his training and the foundations of his craft. He turned into a caricature of himself, cultivating an artificial aggression he thought the world wanted to see in him. Soon, he had hollowed himself out. He became a shell. He was all package and no product. Eventually, even the packaging fell away.

I fear the same thing is happening to many of our celebrities in Kenya today. The signs are all there. One hit song or movie or TV show, and they think they have arrived. They start acquiring the fancy threads, the cool wheels, the posh digs. Their image becomes their life. What lies inside the human being is lost under the clothes and make-up, under the swirling delusions of the mind. Inevitably the craft suffers: the hits stop coming, the popularity wanes, and rapid burnout ensues.

This is not confined to just the dumbest and least lettered. Observe even the more sober members of Nairobi’s famous set. When they invite the media into their homes to give interviews, there is only one thing on their minds: to show Kenyans what they have, not what they are. So you will see the famous one being interviewed reclining on an expensive settee, with some designer trinket or other placed carefully within the photo frame. Much of the talk will be about the number of shoes and outfits in the wardrobe, the car in the garage, what cost what. All baubles, no values; all frills, no skills. Our celebs may not have the wretchedly low self-esteem of ghetto-boy Tyson, but they are not that far away from him. They are not people, merely packages.

The business world is not immune from this disease. Once upon a time, the product sold itself. It had inherent attributes – functionality, quality, usefulness – which were all that a consumer needed to know about. It’s all different now. Product is passé, the package prevails. So it’s not enough to have a good product or good service; the consumer’s perception of it is what must be managed. The brand is the thing. Investments must be made in mesmerising adverts, seductive image associations and all sorts of manipulative stimulation of the consumer’s latent sense cravings and insecurities.

What’s the danger here? Again, that the emphasis is on the wrong things. Marketing, public relations and reputation management become the key functions – not research, production or quality control. If those boring “back-office” things are at all interesting, it is for their impact on image and reputation. Otherwise, they are just basic enabling functions. The sex, so to speak, is in how to play with the consumer’s mind.

Think about it. Have any of the following things really changed in fundamental quality over the years: soft drinks; alcoholic beverages; insurance; apparel? Yet, if you believe their marketers, these products now hold the key to enlightenment, moral uplift, personal fulfilment and lifelong security for all the people who care to buy them. It is the only way to make you buy more, buy beyond saturation – by making you associate the product with a deeper value (community spirit, say); with a basic craving (usually sex or status); or by making you fearful (of failure, or even death). This is base manipulation. But you fall for it every time and buy the product, thereby making the practice worthwhile.

Because vapid marketing works, shareholders support it and management teams revel in it. But often the necessary investments in research, in technology, in quality, in good people, and in strategic thought are sidelined or forgotten. Some day, this neglect bites back, and bites back hard. We all remember the leading bank with the seductive advertising campaign in the 1990s, showing a child facing a glowing future. We all know that this was not reflected in the banking halls, in product innovation, in strategic positioning or in basic decent customer service. And we all know that the bank has been struggling since.

As individuals and as institutions, this kind of hollowness is a fate to avoid. Success does not come from elaborate smokescreens and special effects. At the end of the day, we have to develop some rather more dull and prosaic skill sets. We have to work hard, be consistent, and keep raising our game. By simply playing with the packaging, we will ultimately be left with no product in our hands.

Let’s end with another celebrity. Damien Rice is an unusual kind of pop star. He achieved remarkable success with his recent album “O”, which went triple platinum in the UK and sold over 2 million copies in the rest of world. Yet, as the Independent on Sunday revealed in a recent interview, Rice’s “motivations are almost devoutly uncommercial, and much of his music is fiercely unsentimental.”

In Rice’s own words: “It dawned on me recently that I’m going to die one day. And I started to wonder what, precisely, have I achieved in my life? A lot of people may know my name and my music, but so what? I’m still not the most compassionate or enlightened of people, and I want very much to become a better person. At some point, death is going to happen, and I must fill that void before it does.”

Rice speaks of not seeing the point of conventional success. “I mean, for what purpose? To make more money? Money just makes me feel out of balance with my friends, and so I don’t want more money. Fame does the same thing. I don’t want to be famous.”

What, a rich and successful person who doesn’t care about riches and success, only about being better as a person? Must be mad. We should pay attention.

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