CNN | Bin Laden bread a hit for Malawi bakers


(CNN) — Naming a product after the world’s most notorious terrorist may not seem like a surefire route to commercial success.

For bakers in the Malawian city of Blantyre, however, this marketing ploy is helping to reel in customers while ensuring that their produce has an unmistakeable identity.

“We make bin Laden buns,” said Mahomed Hanif Valimamade, co-owner of a patisserie within the city named the Portuguese Bakery.

The standard bread rolls — which are not exclusive to any one company and are produced by a variety of outlets in Blantyre — were initially given their unconventional moniker by customers who likened their appearance to similar bread made in the Middle East, says Valimamade.

The tag quickly caught on, and when businesses realized how their products were being identified, they began to label them as such, to great effect.

It seems to me this is nothing to do with politics. Malawian people are very pro-Western.
Mahomed Hanif Valimamde, baker

On a good day, Valimamade claims, small bakeries like his own can sell as many as 2,000 “bin Ladens,” adding that a large part of what makes them stand out is their attention-grabbing title.

He is quick to point out, however, that the name has nothing to do with an admiration for or expression of solidarity with the now-deceased al Qaeda figurehead.

“The majority of people like this name,” Valimamade explained. “It seems to me this is nothing to do with politics. Malawian people are very pro-Western.”

Since catching on around the beginning of the Afghan war in 2001, the unlikely success of brand bin Laden has not gone unnoticed by other enterprises in Blantyre. Many have even adopted similar naming conventions for their own products.

There are now baked goods and breads named after George W. Bush and Barack Obama, says Valimamade — although these do not sell as much as bin Laden due to the fact they are slightly smaller. There is also a mobile phone named after the Malawian president, Bingu wa Mutharika.

According to Valimamade, such creative naming policies are a source of fun and frivolity that emphasize Malawians’ “unique sense of humor.”

To other local business analysts, however, they represent a savvy adaptation to customer identification processes by businesses keen to give their products a competitive edge.

“The naming, though often spontaneous and accidental, is appealing” to local customers, said Collins Namakhwa, a lecturer in marketing and branding at Malawi Polytechnic University in Blantyre.

In Malawi, the strength of political opinion against a controversial figure is not as high as in the Western world.
Collins Namakhwa, Malawi Polytechnic University

“In Malawi, people are so taken up by the popular frenzy that they may try a product just because it is popular,” he added.

Namakhwa explains that businesses that have renamed their products to take on names like “bin Laden” and “Obama” are able to tap into socially driven events or popular trends that resonate with consumers in their daily lives.

This, he says, makes the items more recognizable, easier to distinguish than their more conventionally titled competitors and, most important, more likely to sell.

But while enthusiastic about the creativity of Blantyre’s businessmen, Namakhwa is aware that outside observers may see it as tasteless — and bad business practice — to name products after figures such as Bush and bin Laden.

The intricacies and complexities of Malawi’s marketplace, however, as well as its isolation from the subjects of their naming policies, ensure that any negative connotations present in other environments are irrelevant, says Namakhwa.

“In Malawi, the strength of political opinion against a controversial figure is not as high as in the Western world,” he said.

He added that external factors such as a decline in Obama’s popularity in America would not necessarily lead Malawians to stop buying a bread named after him in their country.

Valimamade agrees, saying that even though some may react negatively to the product titles, the majority of local people will continue to demand or react positively to them.

As long as there is competition to create attractive products, he said, “this type of name will always exist, (and) as a business, we must follow the winds.”

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