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The Bata shoes story
Is the glass half full, or half empty? It depends on how good you are at looking.


Ken Burnett, writer, publisher and occasional fundraising consultant.


‘Huh,’ she exclaimed with contempt, ‘that was nothing new. I already knew
all that.’

‘Well,’ I replied, trying to be sagelike, ‘I know what you mean, but funnily enough I took six pages of notes, nevertheless.

Some later articles you may like:
Doing the right thing by donors.
Pure gold: the 34 essential foundations of fundraising.
Continous donor choice: fundraising’s best opportunity in ages.
Giving donors choices: a fundraising preference service from 1986.
Who’d want to live next door to a lapsed donor?

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Tales from The Field by the River:
Animal intelligence,
The adventure of the five white bulls.
Rough sex down by the river.
Alzheimer’s disease has stolen my great friend.

And also a special
from the distant past, A Sudan safari.

The Bata shoes story has been a favourite of mine for so long I’ve almost forgotten why. Recently I had a salutary reminder of it, which made me think that this story perhaps holds one of the simplest yet most profound and important messages of all, for all of us.

The Bata shoes story goes like this:
When I first visited Africa in 1978 I toured the wild north of Kenya. In tiny villages and markets along the way I kept seeing signs for Bata, the shoe company. When it came to indications of commercial product dominance in these flyblown, out of the way spots, Bata was in evidence far more than any other maker of anything. I vaguely wondered why at the time, and later was told this tale, in explanation.

At the end of the nineteenth century, just as colonial Africa was opening up as a market, all the manufacturers of shoes in Victorian England sent their representatives to Africa to see if there might be an opportunity there for their wares. All duly came back in time with the same answer. ‘Nobody in Africa wears shoes. So, there is no market for our products there.’

All, that is, save for the Bata rep. He came back saying, ‘Nobody in Africa wears shoes. So, there’s a huge market for our products in Africa!’

And that’s why signs promoting Bata appear all over Africa, even in the remotest of spots. It’s why Bata’s shoes are known as the shoes of Africa.

So, what’s this got to do with fundraisers? Well, it’s about how we look at things and how we see them. It illustrates why being good at looking is a quality well worth cultivating.

Another instructive example for me came years back when I found myself at a fundraising conference in the UK, attending a session called ‘frontiers of direct mail’ or something similar, a panel discussion featuring many of Britain’s most successful fundraising direct marketers. Sitting next to me in the audience was a young account manager from a marketing agency of my acquaintance, just a few weeks into the job. After the presentations she couldn’t wait to deliver her verdict.

‘Huh,’ she exclaimed with contempt, ‘that was nothing new. I already knew all that.’

‘Well,’ I replied, trying to be sagelike, ‘I know what you mean, but funnily enough I took six pages of notes, nevertheless.

She delivered me a withering look, which showed that her scorn for me knew no bounds. She didn’t have to say so, for I could sense her smugness as she flounced off thinking. ‘Fancy that, I know more than Ken Burnett.’

The fact that people see things differently was brought home again for me recently at the UK Institute of Fundraising’s 2011 National Convention where I shared the stage briefly with two splendid observers of the human condition, Giles Pegram and Alan Clayton. Afterwards we were duly sent the audiences’ evaluations of our presentation, handed in as they always are at the end of our show.

I’m a bit long in the tooth now to pay much store by evaluations. They always only give part of the story and you invariably have to discount the ‘Mr Grumpy’ effect. But how can one reconcile the difference between comments such as these?

One delegate wrote, ‘didn’t take anything away from session. Boring, not interactive’, while another said, ‘wow – thank you so much. Already I feel 10 feet tall and I haven’t even started yet.’ Were these people in the same room? Well of course they were. Each had seen and heard the same things, but had looked and listened differently.

Someone else said, ‘it’s just common sense’, and that was clearly a criticism. Another said ‘it’s just common sense’ and meant it was great to be reminded of simple, fundamental truths.

Of course we know nothing anyone does will please everyone. But equally, if we dismiss something because we think we already know better, we’ll often miss out. Instead, we should learn to look and listen better, and to think before we jump.

Thanks for the lesson, Bata.

© Ken Burnett 2011

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Ken Burnett is a director of The White Lion Press Limited and a former chairman of the board of trustees at the international development charity ActionAid. He’s author of several books including Relationship Fundraising and The Zen of Fundraising and is managing trustee of SOFII, The Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration. For more on Ken’s books please click here.

Readers’ comments:

From Kevin Baughen – exploitation.
I worked for Bata in Europe for years and to be honest, their philanthropic behaviours ended towards the end of the sixties in this territory.  From then onwards, Africa and Asia for that matter were markets to be exploited (and I mean exploited) from a manufacturing and supply perspective.  Local relations got so bad that I remember during the eighties the MD of Bata Africa had to be rescued by a helicopter from a murderous mob in Kenya keen on showing him exactly what they thought of the working conditions and retail prices... Whilst this doesn’t change the facts of your analogy, I just thought you’d like to know a little more about the company’s record.

Kevin Baughen, Bottom Line Ideas.

From Ian Clark – alternative version.
Thanks for reminding me of this tale.  The version I heard from a senior Bata director more than two decades ago differed in a few details.  Tomas Bata was a Czech at the end of the 19th century (there's a potted history at who came from a long line of family shoemakers.  But he was the first to use factory methods and automated machinery in the first decades of the 20th century.  He soon started exporting around central Europe and then further afield, setting up local subsiduaries in each country to sell shoes (and in some places to manufacture them as well.  He apparently wanted to test the mettle of two of his sales managers, so sent one down the west coast of Africa to assess the market potential, and the other down the east coast.  One came back reporting that there was no market for shoes, as all Africans were barefoot.  His colleague said there was unlimited market potential, as not only did most Africans envy him his shoes, there were no competitors

Ian Clark, Fundraising Strategy.  

From Nick Hay – the dark side.
Regarding seeing opportunities, there's a funny story in the Vance Packard ‘Waste Makers’ book about a company that figured out they made enough potato peelers in a year to put two in every house in the US. They wondered why that was and found out that people were peeling their potatoes and throwing the peeler away in the newspaper afterwards. A bright young guy suggested they make the peelers with red handles so people didn't throw them away. But his boss decided to make them with brown handles to match the peelings so people threw them away more often and sales went up five-fold. Same ingenuity, but dark side.

Nick Hay, copywriter.

The shoes of Africa. Wherever you go you see the Bata sign.

These boys couldn’t hide their joy when they received a new pair of shoes each. ‘Long live Bata’ they all shouted.


Evaluations always only give part of the story and you
invariably have to discount the ‘Mr Grumpy’ effect.
But how can one reconcile the difference between
comments such as these?


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