In October 2020, young people across Nigeria did something they had never done before. They came out in numbers to protest.
The protests were centered around brutality and extrajudicial killings by the Special anti robbery squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police force but also brought forth conversations around bad governance, rising unemployment, corruption and impunity.
People were speaking up, and they demanded that the brands they patronised joined them. While speaking up came naturally for a few brands bolstered by more radical leadership teams, for most brands, schooled in regulatory inspired conflict avoidance and the traditional public relations practice of avoiding issues with even a whiff of politics, the discomfort was palpable.
I like to think that many brands in the Nigerian context found themselves put on the spot by customers, employees and other stakeholders and a good number were crippled by analysis paralysis: what should we be saying? how should we be saying that? would we be at risk of regulatory backlash? what action is good enough? would people believe us or would we be seen as performative? Is it okay to be neutral?
Now, as the neutrality option evaporates and the lines get less blurry, brands – big and small, across categories, will need to realize that in the African context, we’ve officially entered a new era of the activist consumer.
With many millennials and Gen Z Africans finding hope in protests and intending to become more politically active in the near future, the latest and strongest connector in the social scene is “wokeness (soro soke-ing)” or social and political awareness.
Given that the cornerstone of successful marketing is understanding your target audience and building communication that connects with them, more brands are going to have to learn to practice marketing in the intersection of social issues and activism.
So, how do you win over this crowd and ready your brand for the minefield of social justice marketing?
- Build from within: The best way to build allyship is to begin from a place of honesty, even if that can sometimes be uncomfortable. A good place to start will be articulating your brand’s values by asking “what do we want to be to our customers and employees?.” If you’ve done work on core values or brand purpose, now is an excellent time to dig that out and center it in your marketing strategy. If you haven’t done this yet, there’s no time like the present. Think of this as defining both the character and soul of your brand and having that as the cornerstone from which future actions will flow.
- Commit to one thing all year round: Once you iron out your brand values and a high level strategic overview of what your brand stands for, pick a cause and stick to it. In the Nigerian climate for example, a cause could be getting people to pick up their PVCs, it could be helping people access healing through mental health facilities, it could be funding legal aid. It doesn’t mean that every brand campaign needs to wave that card all the time, but it means that you are proactively supporting relevant bodies or designing social campaigns that uplift that cause during “off-seasons” and not only when that issue is at the forefront of social conversations. Doing this builds authority and keeps people from thinking “your brand is only doing this for the attention” An additional perk of committing to a cause for an extended period is that because your community managers have had a lot of experience focusing on this singular issue, they will be able to give better, more credible responses when needed.
- Act with specificity: The more specific your communication around social issues is, the more believable it becomes. While it is accepted for brands to say “We will donate a portion of proceeds to supporting this cause,” it shows more transparency and a higher level of commitment to say “50% of profits will go to supporting this cause” or “We will match every donation with x$ for every item sold.”
- Engage with your local community: Getting more involved with the local communities where your business resides will be more and more valuable in the coming days. Smart businesses should channel at least a portion of their CSR efforts into building positive relationships with the direct communities their businesses reside. Doing this not only positions your business as a good corporate citizen but also fosters camaraderie with the local communities that could be your saving grace in the case of an unrest.
- Keep your wallet open: Actions speak louder than words but money speaks the loudest still. Because the implicit assumption is that businesses put money before everything else, committing funds to an altruistic cause indicates the company’s true priorities. Write cheques, lobby for change, if you can; use your buying power to insist on due process.
You don’t need to be a futurist to know that you’ll be grappling with social (in)justice issues for quite some time. Tackle these issues of social justice with the same rigor as you would solve a business-critical problem like product development, optimizing pricing, or channel strategy.
Because if you don’t, none of those other things may matter.