Charlie Ali’s African Marketing Lessons

Have you ever met the perfect marketer?  Would you believe they might exist in Africa’s darkest jungles?

One of the best marketers I know came from the remote West African jungles.  It was situated in Pleebo, a village in Liberia, West Africa, right near the Ivory Coast.  His name was Charlie Ali, an Islamic trader in African artwork.  I met this fellow when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. He could sell ice cream at the North Pole.

I had two friends at college.  Let’s call them Dick and Jane.  As a teacher, I get the summer off, and went to Sierra Leone to see Jane.  But Jane took off – got jungle phobia – went back home.  So I hang out in this strange African village, with Jane’s strange roommate.  Then Dick stops by, looking for Jane.  He came to the US shortly after Jane goes back to the US.  It reminds me of the Door’s song “People are Strange.”

Charlie Comes Knocking

I invite Dick back to Liberia, to stay with me a spell.  He meets fellow Peace Corps volunteers, African students, Assembly of God missionaries, Roman Catholic priests and nuns, African merchants, and Bridgestone executives.  We have tea with the priests, southern food with the missionaries, go fishing with the executives, drink beer with the Peace Corps volunteers, and fight off students trying to hook Dick up.

Then along comes Charlie!

Charlie’s customers are the well to do, which in his eyes includes all the folks Dick hung out with.  He has his customers profiled – along with the proper merchandise – to appeal to their desires for exotic African artwork.  Charlie presents his merchandise, along with his sales pitch, while Dick sits in awe.  Dick turns to me and asks me about the price.

What side would you take?  Would it be with the marketer, or a former school classmate?  I took the middle road, and said something like this: “The items will be more valuable, when you return to the states.”

What makes Charlie a good marketer?

Charlie knew all the psychological hot buttons to push.  He knew his target audience.  He spent time learning what they desired. If he could write copy, his stories would be legendary.  Yet there’s one element we could learn from Charlie Ali – along with third would countries.  That’s the practice of bartering.  It’s reminds one of the current auto industry, where the sticker price is inflated.  Then the buyer needs to balance this equation:

The Best Money Value = Price paid for new car +
Price dealer offered on trade-in +
Percentage on auto loan, along with loan terms

Charlie was an expert at negotiation, and how to put “value added” to the offerings.  It goes something like this.

“These items are in high demand, and I can’t keep up with getting enough from local merchants.” – translation: scarcity.

“If you buy these items at this price, I’ll throw in this 2 extra figurines, absolutely free.” – translation: value added – infomercial rip-off.

Don’t try to outdo Charlie

The best lesson came from my friend Dick, who attempted to barter Charlie’s price down – with dismal results!  At the end, Charlie appeared to cry genuine tears, when he echoed these words: “You’re trying to cheat poor Charlie Ali.”

I returned to the states.  What happened to Charlie?  If he connected with international business in West Africa, I’m sure he would succeed in the sales and marketing ranks.

Charlie Ali, where are you?

Randy Kemp


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