The Tipping Point of Bribery

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The only difference between paying tips and paying bribes might just be semantic. I’m not drunk; let me defend my sobriety.

It was at LaGuardia airport. The taxi driver dragged my bag out and threw it on the ground, slammed the trunk angrily and screamed, “fucking nigger” as he marched with fuming inelegance into the car and sped off. What did my mischievous self do this time to upset a taxi driver? No, I didn’t box his ears from behind, are you crazy! I probably should have blown air on his bald head but considering that’s where I’m literally “headed” I was prudent not to endanger karma.

So what did I do to piss off this “yellow cab” driver? I did not have enough cash to pay him a tip. Well, I also thought tips were only a highly recommended voluntary extra payment, but well, this guy actually demanded it, and when I showed him all the cash I had was only enough to pay my fare, he gave me this top notch unforgettable exit service.

Fast forward two weeks later, I was in a taxi again in New York, this time to JFK and here I was, being given a sermon by this taxi driver on how my tip should be really good considering all the shortcuts he was taking to get me to the airport in time for my flight. Of course, this time I came prepared with enough to tip. Let’s say I had been properly schooled.

I am not the only one with stories about how service providers in the US have used coercion and persuasion to take tips from people. In fact when I shared my story, it aroused series of similar testimonies in different settings from restaurants to bars where service providers have sometimes even specified how much tip they want. I don’t know what God thinks about it, but these guys are making us pay tithes to them too, and for what, services we are already paying for.

For someone like me who comes from a country famed for bribery, this extortionist punch of tips has had me seriously rethinking bribery, as I know it, having worked in and with public institutions. I think that for all the jiggery-pokery of semantics and the socio-legal permutations, we overestimate the innocence of tips and the guilt of bribery. I am still sober.

There are two distinct differences between tips and bribes: time and transactional space. Tips are often paid after the service and bribes are often paid before the service. The intent is supposed to in the case of tips appreciate the service received, and in the case of bribes influence the service about to be received. Well, if you think about it, it’s all about influencing behavior, and the timing can easily be shifted. If I frequent a particular restaurant and pay heavy tips always, needless to say, I would seriously influence future transactions and the service rendered to me. We have all been to places where certain customers are received as local heroes and given preferential treatments because they tip heavier. So unless it is strictly a one-off transaction, tips influence future services like bribes.

Even in one-off transactions, one could very well argue similarity, within the scope of anticipated reinforcement. In anticipation of a tip as reward, I offer good service to influence both your decision on if and how much tip you would give. If the ensuing tip does not match my expectations vis-à-vis the effort outlay, then I would want to kill you, like my first taxi driver, so it better. Or I may shamelessly negotiate a favorable outcome by overtly linking my effort to the anticipated tip, like my second taxi driver. Whichever way you shift the payment within time, tips can influence behavior just as bribes do. It’s a game of influence.

However there is the second factor of transactional space that challenges the above argument—tips are paid in private transactions whereas bribes are paid in public transactions. Even if you paid a public official money after a transaction because you were elated with the service, moralistic regimes are likely to proclaim it bribery rather than a tip. I could see sense in the argument that we should not permit people who render services to the public, whose roles call for objectivity and impartiality (private businesses are permitted to be as biased as the devil’s wife) and whose jobs are funded by our taxes should not be placed in the game of influence, be it tips or bribes.

But why not! Why shouldn’t public officials be allowed to take tips? I would like to pay a tip to a cop for stopping me to check my car trunk in the middle of the night, just in case I have finally killed Sefa and put him there to rot. Because the last time I checked we pay tips to supplement the low wages of staff. Well, arguably, public officials, especially in my low-income Ghana are paid way worse than their private sector counterparts. As a matter of fact they need those tips more, you see. I believe like the private business, it will be that extrinsic motivation that finally gets public servants off their “it’s not my father’s business” attitude into rendering Jedi services. What’s good for the private goose should be good for the public gander, don’t you think.

I’m not saying they should break the law, or subvert processes, I’m only saying we should consider letting the customer influence the quality of service they receive from the public service provider, as they do the private ones. You are right; the nihilist within me is at work, but why not. Why should we bother with delineating bribery from tips when there is absolutely no axiological difference between them, when they both seek to influence. We may not be dealing with the headache of bribes if we normed it by tipping it from its moral low ground of corruption to that moral haven of candor that its identical twin, tips enjoy.

Else, let’s abolish both, because they are both, in my opinion pointless equally as they are useful equally; equally capable of evil as they are of positive utility. I pay taxes that pay the public servant, well, so do I pay for the services from that restaurant. If I am required to pay tips to the latter, why not pay tips to the former. If it is inappropriate to pay tips bribe to the public official, why should I be required to pay bribes tips to the waitress?

Of course I won’t pay a tip to the police for arresting me for murder, but why can’t the victim’s family do that. Surely, it will motivate the cops when they stand in the cold checking car trunks the next time. [As an aside, cops certainly won’t be harassing/shooting black citizens for pointless reasons, considering that may not help their tips; I doubt any cop will say they don’t want a black person’s tip. I don’t think any waitress has refused someone’s tip on the basis of his or her skin color yet, why would cops].

If my consular officer refuses me a Visa, he’s not getting a tip from me, because I am not satisfied with the service, dammit. That does not mean he should give me a Visa if I do not warrant it, but he would more likely be nicer about refusing me the Visa, and will be likely to show me how to make an improved application, rather than dismissing my application like it was a letter from his wife’s divorce lawyer.

We wouldn’t have to police bribes in the public sector or make it this sacred thing that is conducted with cultic diligence. Public servants won’t have to shamelessly stall on their work to signal an invitation for bribes before they hasten to duty. The rules of engagement will be clear: if you want extra payment, do your job, and well, and the satisfied customer will reward you. If the private sector is allowed to maintain such a practice and it has not degenerated into mass madness then the public sector that regulates the private sector should be able to do it. Else, like the Aussies, say no to bribes, say no to, tips. What you earn is what you have earned. No room for extra nonsense!

Now I think I am getting drunk in my head, but hey, give this drunkard a break! The point is, any money marked as extra payment will almost always influence behavior whether it is paid before or after the transaction. It can be good such that it leads to better services, and it could also slip into insanity, if it is subverted for exploitation. If any culture decides it’s good to have such a practice, then it is hypocritical to call it “bribery” if it is paid before a service, and “tips” if it is paid after the service, because the outcome is the same. If due to lack of imagination you limit it to just the private sector but you assume cynicism when it comes to the public sector, then it is unfortunate and discriminatory.

Well, I’m crazy, obviously. Let those with a more sane opinion on this matter throw some my way.

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A Letter to the CEO Of Ennkasa Apparel

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Dear Mr. Awuku,

The last time our paths crossed, they called you Gunshot, and I was a seismic (how self-indulgent!) prefect seizing your non-school shorts somewhere in Fraser House on a drub Saturday evening in 2007. But times have changed. I have since been banished to the self-righteous world of academia, and you are doing something more exciting in the anti-nakedness business. I hear you are building a brand, and it is for this reason that I have come to eat your house matter. Although I hear your Ennkasa brand clearly specifies that I keep my fat lips shut, I am shamelessly helpless in that department. So please be my host.

First, let me sing your praises. I love what you are doing. Brand building is a Herculean task, and very few possess the imagination and desire, and accrue the learning and luck needed to succeed. So nice one. Let me tell you what I like about your brand, and think you should keep doing.

You are different.

The essence of a brand is differentiation. People should be able to tell who you are, what you stand for, and why you are unlike anyone else trying to do the same thing you are doing. Your difference does not lie in your suits necessarily, although sincerely I have not worn your suits before to judge objectively. But telling from the design of your suits, which are aesthetically pleasing by the way, I am confident, they are not necessarily novel. I have seen such designs elsewhere before. But that’s exactly why you are different. You are building excitement around a simple product offering by enamouring it with drama.

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Branding is about influencing consumer perceptions that you are different. Key to influencing perceptions is grabbing consumers’ attention from the sea of brands they are exposed to daily. Here is where you win, handsomely. All the drama you build in your ads, the nicely gagged models, the Alexander Graham Bell telephone attached to the suit, the little snippets of “son of man” wisdom, the testimonial images of people wearing your brand and the unusual settings of your photoshoots are shattally and sarkcessly on point.

These dramatic communication strategies command attention, and go a long way to suggest to consumers that you are different, even if the product itself is not necessarily unique. You get away with creating the notion that wearing a suit doesn’t have to be formal, vanilla and boring. The suit is after all, to borrow a line from the movie Kingsman, “the modern gentleman’s armour”. Wearing a suit communicates an exciting and interesting personality. Apple didn’t design the first smartphone nor the first tablet, but they produced the perfect mix of design, drama and product performance to convince the world that they are the gods of these products. So keep doing what you are doing, and only ECG will be your limitation.

But you can pay any fool to sing your praises. So let me tell you what I think you can do to grow your brand. This is obviously unsolicited, so throw it to the dogs if you may.

Do you know your target market?

Whenever I teach segmentation, targeting and positioning to my class, I begin with the parable of the sower. My interpretation of this parable in a marketing context is that if the sower had purposely looked for the good soil and placed his seed there, he would have had an almost 100% return on his investment. Instead by indiscriminately throwing the seeds, he only landed a 25% return (the rest fell by the roadside, in thorns and in rocks). Similarly, in any given market there are roadside consumers (those who barely pay attention to your brand), rocky consumers (those who easily get excited about your brand but never actually follow through to patronise it), thorny consumers (those who commit to your brand, but leave you when competition makes a tempting offer) and good soil consumers (your brand loyalists).

If you engage in undifferentiated marketing, by targeting everyone, you too like the proverbial sower will reduce your chances of success by 75%. So why not deliberately seek out that 25% of the market who are really suited to your suits. Do you know those people? Find out, or determine who you want them to be, and focus your energies on them. One way to do this, is to determine who is the ideal person you want wearing your clothes (and automatically who you don’t want wearing your clothes). These days, almost everyone is on social media, and so advertising on social media really means advertising to everyone, and that means advertising to nobody. Branding is about strategic discrimination, because you can’t serve everyone. We academic marketing people call it segmentation and targeting. I know, we are silly like that with pointless terminologies.

So find out who you want to wear or is wearing your clothes: what they do or where they work; where, how, why and on whom they spend their time and money; how, why and what they wear; what is their lifestyle; are they religious; what is their level of education; what is their attitude towards money and locally made clothing; where, how often and with whom do they shop; what are their life goals, fears, hopes and desires, and so on. It is important that you know your target customers so well that you can think, feel and even become them. I know it’s a lot of work, but whoever said building a brand was easy. Don’t worry, you have time to work these out gradually. You can always hire a good research agency to this for you too, if you want. I can recommend a few. But, I digress.

Once you know who they are/should be, now you need to design your clothes, set your prices, and tailor your communication and distribution to suit them (I love these tailor puns!). We marketers call it positioning, go figure. But it is the magic key to successful branding. You can position your brand around their fears or hopes for example, using the same dramatic approach you are using now. But you can see how less effective your current approach will be if it has no specific audience. For all you know the people who are most likely to buy your suits find the gags on your models a bit disconcerting, or maybe not. For all you know they want more than suits, or always wear something in addition to suits that could open up another product line for you. Perhaps they are willing to pay more for your suits than what you are  currently charging for them? But how can you know unless you find out who they are and what they want in life?

Remember this. When people buy things, they buy them to achieve some goal or solve some problem in their lives, and not necessarily for the sake of the products. It was the legendary Peter Drucker who said, “the customer rarely buys what the business thinks it is selling him”. People do not buy products, or suits for that matter, they buy hopes, desires, goals, security, happiness and relationships. So find out who your customers are, what they want in life and position your brand as an indispensable partner in achieving those life goals, and you will be swell.

Don’t forget the little things.

It is easy to get caught up in the aesthetics of marketing, and forget the little things that matter most. So as you move into astronomic branding strategies, here a few little things you should never forget to do.

  1. Quality. If the quality of your clothing is subpar, no amount of advertising and Banksying will save your brand. The most powerful ad is the quality of your products. So invest in making good suits, and you will be surprised how many brand apostles you will create. Remember, you make clothes, and as Shakespeare noted, “the apparel proclaims the man”, and I think that is what your Ennkasa brand mantra projects: to let the apparel do the talking. If your suits are great, and someone wears it, it will naturally generate a conversation about your brand. So make sure they are.
  1. Customer Service. Nothing beats superior customer experience in today’s world of marketing. The easiest way to differentiate your brand in Ghana is through proper customer service, because in Ghana, for many businesses, the customer is the pawn. You can make a difference by literally worshipping your customers. Know your customers by name, know when it is they or their child or partner’s birthday and give them a gift/message, deliver clothes for free, treat them like queens/kings, and never win an argument with your customer. These are simple rules of customer service and they only require a little extra effort. I heard someone say that the only difference between ordinary (brands) and extraordinary (brands) is that little extra. Put in that extra effort to delight your customers, because as Roger Staubach noted “there are no traffic jams along the extra mile”. You will be peerless in that department.
  1. Be reliable. Reliability is easily a part of the two things I have just talked about, but because it is an Achilles heel among Ghanaian tailors, I choose to address it separately. It is a well-known stereotype: Ghanaian tailors are as unreliable as the nation’s power supply. A tailor will promise you your shirt/dress will be ready by the 10th, and you will be lucky to get it by the 30th. When they see you come to complain norr, then they will pick up your material and say, “oh I have been working on it o”. Oh chale, some tailor took my money and didn’t produce the shirt until after two years when I traced him to some lungulungu place, and went to seize a shirt of my liking from his shop. I tell you! But not everyone has my Motown prefectorial clothes-seizing skills, which you have experienced firsthand.

My personal advice is to deliver when you say you would. From contractors to pastors, from politicians to physicians, people are more often unreliable in Ghana, I have found. You can be strategically different in this regard. In fact, manage expectations, tell customers you will deliver on the 15th when you know you can finish on the 10th. That way you can delight them by delivering before time, and you give yourself room to manage any unforeseen disruptions to your timelines. Enough said!

I would like to think I have not said anything new here that you didn’t know before. After all, business is common sense, but you see, common sense is not common practice. So I hope you will find my unnecessarily long note here useful. Otherwise, I apologise for wasting your time. I am a fan of your brand, and will be keeping an eye on your moves. From time to time, my itchy mouth may find its way to your doorsteps. Until then…

…Akora Apantan.