In gorilla marketing, life’s a jungle

May 22, 2019 by

Clutching his AK-47, the lead ranger motioned for us to stop. We froze in silence as another ranger slashed a path through the dense jungle with a machete. Finally, it was time. After seven hours of bushwhacking, covered in mud and soaked in rain, my wife and I came face to face with a family of wild mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

Hiking to see the few remaining wild mountain gorillas is fortunately very regulated, and my one-day gorilla trekking permit set me back $600. This didn’t include airfare, lodging, and all the other costs associated with traveling to rural Uganda. Expensive, but less than half of the $1,500 that Rwanda charges for an equivalent permit in a neighboring forest just over the border.

So why the big price difference? The answer lies in marketing. Infamous for the horrific Rwandan genocide in 1994, Rwanda is making big moves to transform its image into a stronger and more stable nation. The country completely banned plastic bags in 2008 and requires all citizens to clean up public spaces once a month. It’s working—cities are clean, infrastructure is strong, and traffic is orderly. Police officers stand along every major street, contributing to a sense of stability but also state control.

These characteristics and policies, all unusual for Sub-Saharan Africa, are designed in part to make outsiders notice. Aspiring to become a high-income country by 2050, Rwanda is making marketing decisions to appeal to more high-end investors and tourists. They know that price can be an indicator of perceived value and are betting higher prices will make their gorilla treks more sought after. While the price for a gorilla trek in Rwanda was too rich for my blood, so far the strategy is working: when celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Natalie Portman went to Africa to see wild gorillas, they went to Rwanda. Tactics like these have helped the land of a thousand hills become one of the Africa’s fastest growing economies.  

While my experience merely scratches the surface of a complex country still rife with issues, I’ve realized that you can learn about almost anything by analyzing it through a marketing lens—including the marketplace for wild gorilla treks. Even when I am on vacation, I’m still a marketing consultant.

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