Last week, I joined thousands of runners, walkers, joggers and sightseers on the second edition of the First Lady’s Half Marathon that is a key brand pillar for her flagship Beyond Zero campaign. The starting point for the race was at Uhuru Highway opposite the Nakumatt Mega store, but since roads were closed, the closest we could get dropped off was at the Madaraka/Nairobi West roundabout. The road was filled with pedestrians dressed in the bright violet shade of the race T-shirt, and an instant camaraderie was struck with anyone wearing the same uniform. As soon as the gunshot to start the 10 km race went off, Uhuru Highway west bound was filled with thousands of people, and the pitch black tarmac quickly morphed into a beautiful sea of purple as middle class Kenya flowed onto the route. There were no tribal or social groupings, just joyful noise as sections of the crowd broke into songs and cheers to maintain a slow jogging momentum.
But not everyone was wearing the official violet race T-shirt. Zipping in between the runners were young men and ladies in bright crimson T-shirts emblazoned “Sonko Rescue Team”, many of them on roller blades. A few women wore long, black buibuis, and I saw one whose face was completely covered save for her eyes that shone with determination to complete the course in thirty degree centigrade temperatures. There were beauty queens too, Miss Turkana County and a couple of other counties were also represented, the title holders proudly adorning their distinctive winners sashes on top of their racing gear. It was also an opportunity for many to use the services of the pay-as-you-go Ekotoilet facilities at the north and south ends of Uhuru Park and long lines had snaked their way around the buildings by the time we were getting there. It was also quite interesting to observe the participants who stopped at the viewpoint outside Maji House on Community Hill to take pictures of themselves with the ubiquitous KICC in the background. Weaving past the participants were female riders clad in leather from head to toe astride sexy motorbikes branded IMG, the organizers of the event. Their duty became apparent when a girl collapsed somewhere near Riara University with no ambulance in sight. A walkie-talkie was rapidly unleashed from its leather bound confines and a St. John’s Ambulance was there in no time at all. All in all, it was an entertaining, musical and very colorful experience that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Two years ago, the First Lady’s marathon did not exist. The Beyond Zero campaign was founded in January 2014 to partner with the government in reducing maternal and child mortality. The aim is to provide mobile clinics in all 47 counties with a view to helping reduce Kenya’s current maternal mortality rate of 488 deaths per 100,000 live births to 147 by this year. What I observed last Sunday was that if you give middle class Kenyans a cause that they believe in, they can and will actually get off their backsides and fill the streets with passion and fervor to run, walk or rollerblade in its name.
The Beyond Zero campaign is a classic textbook example of how to build a brand. According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, there are 5 critical steps to building a brand but I want to focus on just two. First, you the brand owner have to build a brand you are passionate about. Right from the starting block of her husband’s swearing-in as President, the First Lady has presented a strong, visible maternal image that has brought a softness and humanity to State House without appearing contrived or choreographed. Her passion over women and children’s issues is aligned to the strategic objectives of her office: HIV control, as well as promotion of maternal, new born and child health in Kenya. These strategic objectives happen to cut across all regions and tribes and immediately stir up affinity and sympathy amongst Kenyans.
The second brand building exercise is that you have to be your brand’s biggest advocate. Watching the First Lady train and then execute the 21 km, followed by the full 42 km in London last year captured the hearts of many by showing vulnerability and a willingness to endure physical pain and discomfort for a cause she believes in. It wasn’t a gimmick and it wasn’t for the cameras. For many Kenyans whose idea of exercise is mouthing off curses at matatus, Kanjo officers and traffic overlappers in that order, this was a truckload of inspiration: If a middle-aged mother of three can get up and run a marathon, so can I.
In the 2014 first edition, the marathon registered 11, 000 official participants. This year, there were over 17, 000 registered participants and about 4-6,000 unregistered participants who showed up anyway to run for the cause. The organizers got a taste of the peculiar Kenyan habit of last minute action. Registration for the race began in September 2014 and by March 2nd 2015, six days before the race, only 4,000 people had registered in the 17 registration centres, which translated to less than a person a day on average. In the last five days before the race, 13,000 showed up to register in true native fashion. 148 corporate teams also graced the occasion and the pool of collections for the campaign since inception now stands at about Kshs 200 million with an objective of raising Kshs 600 million in total.
The First Lady’s marathon is a contemporary example of strategy in action. It demonstrates that it is possible to build a brand based on a cause that touches every day life, a cause that knows no social class or tribe. It also demonstrates that you can get Kenyans to run walk or limp for your cause if you yourself are willing to make the sacrifice, physical or otherwise, for the same. I doff my hat to the First Lady and her strategy team.