What your brand should be doing during #EndSARS protests

October 20, 2020
7 min read

By Onalaja Gbenga & Ezekiel Ojewunmi

The #EndSARS protests are catching many businesses off guard. Companies, large and small, are scrambling to communicate responsibly in real time.

In a moment in our national history that is as taut as this, your brand must tow a fine line. Beyond the challenge of capturing your message in a way that is empathetic and effective (as opposed to staid and tone deaf) there is the unique challenge of responding in a manner that doesn’t threaten the continued existence of your business.

Over the last couple of days, some brands have responded so well that recompiling their efforts presents us a useful framework to answer the question of what your brand can do as well.

  • Flutterwave (and a coalition of other tech companies) created a fund for the protest and shared a public link that allowed other Nigerians to send donations. (The donation link has since been blocked, allegedly by the Nigerian’s Central Bank and the associated accounts frozen.)
  • Piggyvest created the “tri-fist” poster that has now become the de facto logo of the protests.
  • Aelex, a law firm in Victoria Island made some of their lawyers available to bail arrested protesters for free. 
  • Sterling bank has been one of the more vocal Nigerian brands on police brutality through their town hall meetings and social videos.
  • Bolt is giving 50% discount when riders use SOROSOKE -- one of the rallying phrases for the protests (amidst accusation of alleged collaborations between their drivers and rogue SARS elements)
  • Chicken Republic shared free meals to protesters early on in the protests. 
  • Bigi donated free packs of bottled water to protesters.
  • Quidax*, a leading cryptocurrency exchange in Nigeria, stepped up to instruct people on how to donate Bitcoin. (*Ezekiel works for Quidax.)
  • Rene supermarket handed out bottled water to protesters along the Alexander stretch of Ikoyi.

There is a long list of brands who have played a significant role so far and we can’t quite exhaust them (or perhaps, there is no point in attempting to do so). The entire objective of this section is to prove to you that brands can sensibly engage with the protest without coming across like assholes.

Should your brand be a part of this protest?


There is no easy answer to this. 

We expected brands such as the historically youth-focused GTBank or Airtel, or Glo to play bigger roles. But they’ve been quiet. And that’s understandable.

Nigeria is a peculiar context. Unlike North America or Europe where it’s easy to have activist brands such as Nike, Smirnoff, AirBnb or Dove, the backlash for brands taking a stand in Nigeria won’t only come from an aggrieved pro-SARS section of the populace, but the government will also step in to chastise your business. We are seeing instances of these already even as the government frustrates the funding efforts of the protesters by blocking accounts and deactivating funding links.

A lot of the brands who have been quiet are more comfortable alienating the EndSARS protesters, rather than compromise their standing with the Nigerian government. But the protesters are watching too. As the protests shuffle along; they are committing everyday to only patronise brands that stand with them.

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As the millennial and GEN Z demographics continue to demand meaning from the brands they patronize (54% of them expect brands to take an active role in social conversations), your brand might want to take these tweets with more than a pinch of salt.

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Brand responses on social issues have shown to post both positive and negative effects on sales.

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As it stands; you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You simply want to pick the brand of struggle you can manage.

When the dust settles, you want to make sure your brand isn’t one of the ones cowering under the table as the government rapes the nation. 

Here is a framework for supporting the protest without jeopardizing your stand with the government. (Actually, you’ll probably jeopardise your stand with the government just a bit no matter what you do, but won’t you rather sleep better at night knowing you did the right thing? Do with that what you will.)

How should you engage?

1. Be prepared to get nothing out of it

Your support in this protest is not about your brand ambition. This is not the time to calculate how much brand lift you’d get from this. This is not an opportunity to notch up your relevance with the millennial / GEN Z demographies. The kids (read; the protesters) can smell performative allyship from miles away. As the protesters have done with many politicians and celebrities who want to hijack the protests; they will gladly deplatform your brand. They will shame you. 

GTBank showing up to the protest with branded water bottles is an example of how not to support the protest. 

The extra branding on the bottles coupled with the fact that GTBank is yet to post on its social outposts regarding the protests means this gesture scores a low-medium in perceived authenticity.

2. A tweet is not enough, but it’ll do

As brand managers who have been on the forefront of online reputation management for several brands, we understand the risk of identifying fully with an anti-government protest in Nigeria. Some brands quite frankly can’t risk their relationships with the government. In this case, sending out a practical but anodyne update acknowledging the broad theme is a safe bet. Here is an example from Oando. You’ll notice how their team focused on speaking to the safer #EndingPoliceBrutality as opposed to #EndSARS. 

In other markets, we’d be championing for brands to “Soro Soke” (speak up, take a stand), but alas, Nigeria. We would rate this gesture; medium, in perceived authenticity.  

3. Silence is an option, to be honest

quiet shhh obama

Quite frankly, you can keep quiet and let the chips fall where they may. But as we said earlier; you are damned if you speak and damned if you don’t. So pick the brand of damnation you are ready to deal with. 

4. Lend a hand but it's okay if you are not the face of the struggle

We have seen some individuals and brands try to hog the spotlight. Segalink and GTBank, we are looking at you.

Trying to hog the spotlight is a one-way ticket to irrelevance. If you want to be a part of this, go back and read the first point in this framework. 

Flutterwave powerfully demonstrated this idea with their $4,400 fund early on in the protests. We rate this as medium-high in perceived authenticity. 

5. Look for alternative ways to show support outside of direct engagement

A powerful extension of “not being the face of the struggle” is to explore alternative ways of supporting. Some companies are giving their millennial / GEN Z employees days off to either participate in the protest or avoid the gridlock resulting from it by allowing them work from home. 

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Final thoughts

Many companies might feel comfortable invoking #EndSARS to chase clout. Our assumption is that you are better than that. But if you are not, we hope this little treatise has dissuaded you.

The framework here is not exhaustive. For instance, we didn’t cover the very first thing you must do which is to examine the degree to which your existing brand mindset and practices are part of the problem (looking at you RCCG and Deeper Life Church). We hope all these ideas will come together as a good thought-starter for your team.

Ultimately, when the dust settles, we want you to be able look back and say; we didn’t keep quiet while the youth won the country back for us. Your voice counts. Soro Soke. 

This article originally appeared on Gbenga Onalaja's LinkedIn.


Gbenga Onalaja: Gbenga is the Director of Account Management at Focus PPC; a boutique advertising shop servicing clients in Ghana, Nigeria and France. Gbenga is passionate about performance marketing. With Focus PPC, he is leading the movement for bottom line-focused and transparent digital marketing in Africa.

Ezekiel Ojewunmi: Ezekiel is the Head of marketing at Quidax; an Africa-focused cryptocurrency exchange that makes it easy for anyone to buy/sell Bitcoin and other cryptos with their local currency. Ezekiel is passionate about startups. At Quidax, he is helping to drive crypto adoption one person at a time. 

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