#ENDSARS: To Get Involved Or Not? IMC Professionals Examine Why Silence May Be Detrimental
By Jeremiah Agada
On Saturday, October 3, a tweet surfaced online. A young man had been shot reportedly by members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a Nigerian police unit. The young man was shot in front of a hotel in Ughelli, a town in Delta State, said the tweet, and left for dead.
It was all the incentive that President Mohammadu Buhari’s ‘lazy youths,’ the so-called Twitter Warriors, needed after months of angst and protests on the streets of Twitter, to march into the streets of major cities across the country. In Lagos, in Abuja, Delta, Osun, Ogun, Anambra, Rivers, Oyo, Ekiti, and in a number of other states, young Nigerians have taken to the streets to demand that the Presidency disband SARS and reform the nation’s police force. The #EndSars protest is perhaps the most widespread since Occupy Nigeria in 2012 which was against subsidy removal.
Since it began, the #EndSARS hashtag yielded well over 28 million tweets, trending as number one globally, according to social media analytics firm, Afriques Connectées. Wise to the power of amplification and allies, a core part of the campaign has included pushing hashtags to global figures to tap into larger, international platforms. The move has yielded fruit with celebrities, from Premier League footballers in England and American hip hop stars like Kanye West and P Diddy to Oscar-winning Hollywood actresses also sharing the hashtag and lending their support on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Many Nigerian celebrities, influencers and public figures have also thrown their weight behind the campaign and protests, with some of them actively taking part.
“We Bought Into Your Slogans, Now Buy Into Ours”
Among these cacophonies of voices that have risen in support of the #EndSARS Campaign, there is a ‘deafening silence’ from ‘Corporate Nigeria.’ This has not gone unnoticed by the largely youthful population that boasts millennials and Gen Zs as the bulk of its constitution. Not so surprisingly, they have taken to social media to put pressure on corporate brands and organisations to take a stand and “speak up to #ENDSARS.”
Targeting some of these corporate brands, a campaign has gone viral where colours and pay-off lines of these brands are creatively used to send messages to them, imploring them to lend their voice to the movement. Using a bullet ridden background and a message that reads: “We bought your slogans. Now speak up to #ENDSARS,” ads were created and shared extensively on social media. A few of them are captured here: ‘Glow with pride…but all that blight might get us killed by SARS,’ ‘Everywhere you go… Except a SARS cell,’ ‘It’s in You…Like the SARS bullet that ends your life, Big, strong and reliable… ‘Like an AK47, in the hands of a SARS Officer before he shoots.’
Others are ‘Reach for Greatness… Right before SARS show up and reach for their weapons,’ ‘Wouldn’t you rather bank with us…can’t really bank on anything when we’re are dead,’ ‘Open Happiness… But mothers sadly close caskets because of SARS,’ ‘We are Fidelity, we keep our words…Their word is to protect us but their guns is killing us,’ ‘The right bank makes a difference…Really? Because there is no difference between SARS and terrorists,’ and ‘The Sky is big enough…Nothing will ever be enough to replace lives lost.’
One may not be sure why corporate brands are silent on this but the fact is, the current social milieu has resulted in a PR minefield wherein companies may not know the best moves to take. The highly charged and increasingly negative emotions surrounding current events make this a difficult environment for marketers and other corporate communicators. Historically, many companies have taken apolitical stances on controversial events; most have preferred to be neutral observers when it came to sociopolitical topics. Managing Director of STB McCanns, Paul Ugoagwu adds that the fact that the protest may be short-lived makes an involvement by any corporate il-advised at this time. He however explains that “brands may creatively latch on to it to create their own movement to set social media ablaze.”
Ikem Okuhu, a marketing strategist, public relations practitioner and Chief Analyst of Brandish.ng provides yet another perspective on why corporate brands may not be aligning to the #ENDSARS cause: “I am not sure I would take a stand this early on the issue. Nigeria is heavily public-sector controlled and any position taken by a brand could come with heavy backlash in the future. It’s a very sensitive matter that is looking like it could snowball from the primary trigger to other issues. There’s so much bottled up anger and anything could happen. No brand would like any to be remembered as being behind the liquidation of this country. It’s not even in the interest of brands for the country to implode.”
Like Ikem, Tosin Bakare, a professional in the industry who is the Vice President of Kings Global Concept and Managing Director of DD-IMC-an IMC agency is of the opinion that the absence of a unit like SARS would create a field day for the resurgence of kidnappers, violent armed robberies, Yahoo explosion etc. “From the brands’ perspective, a safe, more secure country is better for all in business.”
Experts Speak: Why Corporate Brands Should Take A Stand
A consumer research published in Adweek at the heat of the #BlackLivesMatter protest shows consumers want brands to take a stand on socio-economic issues that affect them. The research shows 60% of American consumers said they are watching how brands respond and that the response will influence whether they buy or boycott. And 37% say they are encouraging family and friends to stop using or start using a brand, depending on that brand’s stand on racial equality. These customers, especially millennial customers, expect the companies to whom they are loyal to be more vocal about such issues. This expectation is reflected in millennial purchasing behaviour captured in a Boston Consulting Group study which revealed that millennials are more likely to purchase products that are associated with a particular cause than are non-millennials.
These research findings align with the views of key industry stakeholders across Nigeria who feel brands should take a stand now before it’s too late. Segun Mcmedal, President of the flagship Lagos chapter of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) is emphatic in his opinion, calling on brands to take a stand. “… brands should take a stand because the welfare of their customers should be of paramount concern to them,” he says. Chido Nwakanma, Former President of the Public Relations Consultants of Nigeria, Communication Strategist and a scholar with extensive media and industry experience consulting in Nigeria and Africa, agrees with this view as he adds, “Brand involvement should be contextual and relevant. Service should be the guidance. If you have a brand that can meet the immediate needs of the protesters, then do so. Provide food, water, medication and similar services. It should flow organically. If you do it for the applause, the brand will stick out in an ugly way,” he warns.
Noting that for many brands, the difficulty in taking a decision is a potential regulatory backlash, Tolulope Olorundero, a Public Relations & Communications Consultant and Founder of Women in PR in a short post she made on LinkedIn, gives direction to the brands that are undecided on the next course of action regarding #ENDSARS: “You must fully understand your brand essence and target market. You must realise that the PEOPLE are the protesters. Communication is not just what you say. It is what you DO, WHEN you do it and HOW you do it.
“Without releasing a statement, your organisation can: share its products to protesters during the march, provide services at discounted rates to protesters, provide branded ambulances and other healthcare products/services on the protest ground, write educational articles on how to protest properly to get results, provide legal representation and let staff work from home.” She adds, “You will get goodwill from the teeming populace, user-generated content as your brand will be talked about organically and earned media.
She warns, “Except you are a B2B or B2G organisation, it will be difficult to get away with silence. B2C companies take note.” This warning is reechoed by Folukemi Ikhalea, Managing Partner of Brand Chicks who comments, “As long as your target audience is the populace, your silence is not golden at this moment.” Relatedly, Joshua Owolabi, a Digital Media Strategist adds, “In this community, everyone must take up this challenge. Don’t say you’re not affected because one way or the other, you will soon feel the smoke,” he also warns.
Sheriff Akinpelu, Strategy Lead for SPV Communication Solutions also lends his voice: “Brands need to know that the people building their brands & those using their products and services are humans with emotions and feelings. We need brands to come through during our trials and tribulations. Consumers will only come through for brands that come through for them. We will no longer buy slogans but actions taken by brands to create better lives for Nigerians.”
Ugo Onuaha, Former Managing Director/Editor- in-Chief of Champion Newspapers and a public affairs analyst weighs in on the issue with a strong caveat: In other jurisdictions brands should not hesitate to side with the people, with popular sentiments. Black Lives Matter in the US is a pointer. But in Nigeria, the presence of gov’t is so pervasive and intrusive. So, caution would be advised. No brand should run ahead of itself. But having said so ending SARS was long overdue and should be supported by individuals and corporates.
“However, I will counsel that brand support for the on-going struggle should be structured to advance wholesale police and policing reforms. It’s good for business in my estimation. But this support should be up to individual brands and the level of their exposure and dependence on gov’t and its agencies to survive or thrive. The way each brand couches its support of the #Endsars and police reforms will also be key. My take is that supporting the campaigns while disavowing lawlessness, violence and arson will pay huge dividends in a population where the young are disproportionately in the majority. And they are the ones driving this struggle. They will forget the brands which were on their side in their time of need. Return on investment is potentially enormous,” he explains.
Like #ENDSARS like #BlackLivesMatter-Borrowing A Leaf
Like #ENDSARS, #BlackLivesMatter Movement began because of police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd. The power of the movement was undeniable, and corporate America felt compelled to respond in some way. In that first week, corporations and brands quickly released a statement against racism, and many made donations to civil rights groups. As the protests continued into the second week, more companies, including those that had already made an initial response, took actions that felt weightier and longer lasting. A few responses from American brands are captured below:
Nike was at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement, leading with a commercial that had a bold repurposing of one of the world’s most famous taglines: “For Once, Don’t Do It.” Beyond words, it also committed $40M to organizations that fight racial inequality and promote social justice. In 2018 they chose Colin Kaepernick as the face of the 30th anniversary of the ‘Just Do It’ campaign. The decision led to a spate of sneaker burnings but sticking to purpose paid off for the brand. The company claimed the Kaepernick campaign led to $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales.
Unilever owned Ben & Jerry’s has been consistent in its support of the Black Lives Matter movement since 2016, along with other progressive issues. But in 2020 they moved beyond lending broad support to demanding specific action. The brand is demanding Congress pass H.R. 40, legislation that would create a commission to study the effects of slavery and discrimination. The brand also called upon the Department of Justice to reinstate policies rolled back by the current administration, specifically policies designed to curb police abuses. And finally, Ben & Jerry’s called out President Trump by name, asking that he not use his Twitter feed to spoon-feed white supremacists and nationalist groups. Beyond words alone, the brand builds purpose into its product. The latest example is “Justice Remix” an ice cream flavor introduced last year. A portion of proceeds goes to the Advancement Project, a racial justice nonprofit. The brand has done this before, with limited-run flavors like “Together Pecan Resist” and “EmpowerMINT,” with a portion of proceeds going to fight voter suppression.
Viacom, which includes youth and entertainment brands like Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, and Comedy Central went dark for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time George Floyd had a knee on his neck that ended his life. Against a plain black slate, the words “I can’t breathe” fade in and out, in sync with the sound of laboured breathing. The ending call-to-action drives to the racial justice organization, Coloor of Change.
And finally, tea. Unless you count the Boston Tea Party, tea isn’t known for its radicalism. But when a far-right vlogger tweeted her support to British brand Yorkshire Tea for not taking a stand on Black Lives Matter, the brand politely responded with “Please don’t buy our tea again.” PG Tips, a tea competitor owned by Unilever, lent support to its rival brand by tweeting, “If you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you’re going to have to find two new brands now #blacklivesmatter #solidaritea.” It’s a quiet move for both brands, but one that signals a willingness to put purpose over profit.