Embracing the exhibition season

The Zimbabwean 2017 exhibition season is set to open at the end of March with the Sunday Mail Bridal Expo. Over the years exhibitions, which are an organised display of products and services to large numbers of customers and potential customers by an enterprise or individual with the view to sell to or cultivate relations with them, have increasingly become an increasingly important brand marketing strategy.

One of the reasons for this is the affordability of the strategy compared to other brand marketing strategies such as advertising. For example, it costs an average of US$2 500 to place a full colour display advertisement in local newspapers while participating in an exhibition such as the ICT Africa exhibition for three days costs about US$1 000. The prevailing economic challenges have forced brand marketers to include exhibitions, which were generally regarded as corporate brand building platforms, in their repertoires of brand marketing strategies.
Even small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which in the past were consigned to the Home Industries halls of major exhibitions, are increasingly becoming major exhibitors. Various government ministries like the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises and Co-operative development and departments such as the ZimTrade are sponsoring exhibition participation by SMEs at events such as the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF). In 2011 Twin Investments (Pvt) Ltd launched an exhibition which is dedicated to SMEs and their stakeholders, the SME International Expo, which has been held every October annually.

Apart from the obvious reasons for participation such as increasing brand awareness, building a corporate brand image and participating because competitors are also doing it, some companies are taking to the exhibition halls to meet specific marketing objectives and targets. They have moved from treating exhibition participation as a source of prestige to a serious business strategy. Below are examples of brand marketing objectives which some local companies have met using exhibitions as a strategy.

Introducing new brands
Exhibitions lend themselves to product launches and introductions to the market due to the high number of visitors. The events enable companies to introduce and explain new products and services to visitors who form potential customers. In 1995 the Swedish Motor Corporation introduced the Volvo B7 semi-luxury inter-city bus to the Zimbabwean market at the Harare Agricultural Show and the bus brand was a huge success. The Volvo B7 bus became the must-have bus brand among bus operators until it was pipped off the prominence pedestal around 2000 by the Marcopolo semi-luxury bus brand. Almost 20 years later Dairibord Zimbabwe introduced its traditional maize-based beverage brand, Pfuko yeMaheu/Udiwo lwaMahewu, in May 2014 to the local market and used the same event, which is held in August annually, to increase the market’s awareness of the brand. Dairibord Zimbabwe ran a promotion in which children who bought two bottles of Dairibord Pfuko YeMaheu/Udiwo lwaMahewu from its vendors received free a ticket to get into the show. Once inside the ticket entitled the children to a balloon pop whose prizes included T-shirts, face-painting, and complimentary Pfuko YeMaheu/Udiwo lwaMaheu bottles.

Explaining products and services
Some Zimbabwean companies have also used exhibition participation to explain products and services to the market. This exhibition benefit applies to both business to business (B2B) and business to customer (B2C) brands as most Zimbabwean exhibitions are mixed events. During the 2014 edition of the SME International Expo, a local funeral services company, Vineyard Funeral Assurance, booked a double stand which enabled it to explain its services to the market. This included introducing and explaining a new type of coffin whose lid is covered by a wild animal skin which the company’s customers could choose from in line with their totems.

A local bus assembly company AVM Africa (Pvt) Ltd used the 2015 Coach and Bus Show to showcase and explain the improvements it was making to its decades-old AVM bus brand which many passenger transport operators were shunning in favour of cheaper imported substitutes due to its high cost, lack of comfort and poor aesthetics. The company drew many people to its exhibit due to a bus chassis on wheels which it displayed at its stand. This enabled it to explain to bus operators and users how imported buses were three times cheaper than its own brands but were not as durable and compatible to Zimbabwe’s rural terrain where 67 per cent of the country’s population lives.

Communicating brand re-positioning
Exhibitions can also be very useful in communicating a brand repositioning. A local converged communications services provider, Africom, in 2010 transformed itself from the B2B company which provided wide area network connectivity and premises wiring solutions to businesses such as banks and supermarket chains to an internet service provider which targeted mainly individuals. The company used the 2010 ICT Africa exhibition to explain its new visual identity and thrust. It moved away from its previous logotype which was based on the map of Africa and adopted a sleeker one which is based on the colour red. It also dumped its previous strap line, Everyone, everywhere networked in favour of Connect to success which articulated its new B2C thrust. The exhibition enabled the company to take advantage of the ICT Africa visitors who exceed 3 000 to market its re-invented self to the market by leveraging on the interactive nature of exhibitions to visitors. Today the company is one of the top internet service providers in Zimbabwe especially to individuals and small and medium enterprises.

Building a customer base
The brand marketing landscape has moved from outbound marketing to embrace inbound or content marketing. One of the prerequisites of successful content marketing is a meaningful customer contact database. Exhibitions present an opportunity to collect visitors’ contact details such as mobile phone numbers for sms-based content and e-mail addresses for newsletters, infographics or e-books. While many exhibitors collect visitors’ details, very few ever contact them again. A Ruwa-based concrete roofing tile manufacturer, Intercrete Zimbabwe, tore itself from the common herd of other exhibitors when it used the customer database it collected during the 2014 SME International Expo to thank visitors for passing through its stand. It now regularly uses the contact details to communicate offers like discounts and free transport offers within Harare for roofing tile purchases of US$2 000 or more.
Belina Payroll, a local human resources and time management solutions provider, used the 2014 ICT Africa exhibition to collect visitors’ details by running a competition where everyone who visited its stand and dropped their business card stood a chance to win one of the two Samsung Galaxy Tab3s. True to its word, the company used the details collected to mail a newsletter the following month advising participants of the winners.

Testing new products on the market
The high visitor number at exhibitions makes them ideal for testing new products or giving out samples in preparation for launches of new or re-branded products. Net One, one of Zimbabwe’s mobile phone network operators, used the 2015 ZITF in Bulawayo to test its fourth generation (4G) technology for its visitors who owned Long Term Evolution (LTE) mobile phone handsets. Kefalos Cheese used the June 2015 Sanganayi/Hlanganani World Tourism Expo to give visitors and buyers a taste of its various cheese types. While some local visitors were familiar with Kefalos’ cheese, the event presented a golden opportunity to the company to sample and showcase its products to foreign buyers and visitors with the view to find new contacts, potential distributors and customers. Even local visitors who had never tasted the company’s brands were targeted to increase brand awareness on the local market.

Meeting, networking and building relationships with customers
In the past Zimbabwean exhibitions were mainly seen as events to showcase brands with the view to secure customers. Things have since changed over the past few years as most exhibitions, even provincial agricultural shows, now have concurrent conferences where exhibitors and other key stakeholders meet to discuss issues relating to various sectors of the economy. Since as far back as 2009, the ZITF, Zimbabwe’s premier exhibition, has been holding an International Business Conference where both local and international speakers present on various issues. Even the Midlands Show, the Midlands Provincial show, has adopted the same strategy as a way of adding value to the annual event. The new crop of exhibition organisers, who started largely after the 2009 dollarisation of the economy, are also doing the same. These include the SME International Expo and the Sunday Mail Bridal Expo.

Concurrent conferences help exhibition participants to meet other players in their industries and exchange notes. They also enable specific economic sectors to sit down, discuss challenges and come up with possible solutions. The events allow participants to meet new contacts and connections which widen their business networks and pools of potential customers for their brands. Concurrent conferences and meetings also give participants the opportunity to network with members of their business networks.

Getting the most of exhibitions
Despite the increasing use of exhibitions among Zimbabwean companies many exhibitors remain a disappointed lot. This is because of the way they go about their exhibition participation efforts. Many are frustrated by the results which they cannot measure because they do not set specific participation objectives. This makes it difficult to evaluate their efforts and measure the results. In order to get the most of exhibitions, exhibitors should properly plan and budget for their events.

This includes organising their participation by working out their budgets, selecting appropriate events, training their exhibition stand staff and choosing strategic stand positions in the exhibition halls or on the grounds. This also includes creating impact by designing a great stands and marketing the exhibition participation to existing and prospective customers before and during the event. Pre-event and during-event marketing helps exhibitors to funnel sufficient numbers of their desired visitor calibre to their stands thereby increasing the chances of them meeting their exhibition objectives and targets. With sufficient training of both exhibitors and their stand staff, Zimbabwean companies can make the most of exhibition participation efforts during the forthcoming exhibition season.

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