Susan Nsibirwa on Branding in the Age of Social Media

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Susan Nsibirwa (SN) on Branding in the Age of Social Media.

RK: It is great to be talking to you, Susan, here on Spaces.

SN: Thanks Robert and thanks to everyone for joining. Nothing like being on the other side of your former boss, I have been sweating.

RK: The keyword is former. The content you put out today is world-class, this is the content people are looking for. The tweet chat engagement today was very insightful.

I have to ask you the question I ask everyone on this show, were you born? Were you born with a logo in your mouth?

We might feel like we know you but we may not. I’m going to tell you, the very first time I saw you, we were at university. You were walking from Africa Hall towards Mitchel (Hall). There used to be eucalyptus trees and you were walking through them. The members that I was with whispered, that is Susan Nsibirwa, she studies Mass Comm.  During our days on campus, your course defined your social standing.

SN: Absolutely!

RK: Let’s get serious, you studied Mass Communication and then you ended up in branding and marketing. How did you arrive at choosing Mass Communication?

SN: It was not intentional at all. My desire was always International Relations. So I did French. Even when I was filling in my forms, I wanted to do political science and French. This is because I planned to do international relations. I studied French from P1 to 3rd year at university. I was very clear on where I wanted my career to go.

When A-level results came back, I had scored BBBB or something like that, so then they told me about this new course at university. And besides I would still get to study political science with Mahmood Mamdani. I had this huge intellectual crush on Mahmood Mamdani. So they spoke me out of doing a flat course since I would also get a chance to study my French. It was a small class of 20 people. I applied and got in. There was nothing like private then, we were all on government sponsorship.

I opted for journalism as a major. My even bigger intellectual crush then was on Charles Onyango Obbo. He was the coolest lecturer.

RK: You leave the coolest lecturer; do you remember his writings in Weekly Topic?

SN: You would come to the lecture room and you would sit there with your mouth wide open drinking from his cup of wisdom.

RK: By the way, he wasn’t only cool in his writing, but even his dress code.

SN: Yes. He was the lecturer wearing jeans. This is the 1990s.

RK: When lecturers used to wear Kaunda Suits.

SN: Exactly. He gave me a gig at Weekly Topic in my first year as a proofreader. I was earning Ugx 10,000 a week.

RK: No way! Do you know how much I was putting in my pocket, Susan? 3K as a factory floor worker at New Vision. You’re tripling my income.

SN: From there, I started writing for the Weekly Topic. When I finished university, I was part of the team that started the Daily Monitor.

RK: Behind that building on Entebbe Road, in the basement?

SN: Yes. Somewhere there. I was following Wafula Oguttu and Charles.

RK: And the two madmen, Kevin and Richard?

SN: Yes. At that time, one of them Joachim Buwembo told me of an opening at the French embassy. They were looking for a press attaché. I had done Mass Comm, I knew my French and I had the media contacts. And at that time there were few media houses. I had done my internship at UTV and Radio Uganda. I knew the entire circle. So I got a job at the French embassy. It was my chance to use my French. I was this French person in a black body.

But the novelty of it kind of wore out from me. Towards the end of 1994, I was reading New Vision and I saw this advert from a media house looking for a media executive. I looked at the JD and it was perfect for me, I applied and I got the job at SCANAD.

RK: Where was Scanad at the time?

SN: It was around Bukasa, Muyenga.

So I got in. Good thing, I already knew the media but now I had to learn how to use media for advertising. We had studied advertising at uni. I don’t know whether they still do that now. That’s how I go into that space. From that, I was promoted to media manager. I was working with Caroline Wandera. She was like the real defining moment in my work career because she taught me the meaning of hard work. My God! I learned how to deliver for clients no matter what.

There was this one time when we had a client in Nairobi called GlaxoSmithKline and we were running multiple brands; FedEx, Lucozade, Ribenna and we had to do the media plans for like a year and present it in Nairobi. I kind of procrastinated on the task. Then I realized at the last moment that the meeting was in Nairobi the following morning and I was not done. Let me tell you, Robert, I sat in the office the entire night working. I then went home and changed, went to the airport went straight into a client meeting, made the presentation and after that, I had to return to Kampala. I was a junior staff and for us, it was an immediate return. I was exhausted.

After the meeting, I found a cheap hotel and I just wanted to sleep. From that day, I learned what it means to deliver on client’s work on time. Today, I tell my team that everything is possible. You cannot tell me otherwise. That for me was a career-defining moment.

RK: When you talk about your team now, tell me; I should have asked you this right away. What are you doing right now?

SN: Oh great! I started a communications agency doing the same things I was doing for other brands before. It is called Urge Uganda. The team is full of young people. So I motivate them to better their work ethic. I try to show them the potential they have to make things happen.  I see myself in them and I push them to see that we scale the boundaries and we grow the company. The only difference now is that my major interest is Ugandan-owned businesses. I feel that with the experience I have gained over the 20 years working with the Multinationals and going to all these places, I believe there is so much that we can apply to the Ugandan brands. They can be sustained and they can last way beyond. Our niche is Ugandan-owned businesses.

RK: Looking at the context then and the context today, what has social media done today that has reconstructed the audiences, the customer experiences, and brand engagement? Can you describe what has changed?

SN: Where do I start?

RK: The beginning is always a good place to start.

SN: Everything has changed, Robert. The whole idea of mass communication. It was all about power centred in the hands of a few people, the government, and big organisations. They sent out the messages and people listened. You were able to influence what people think and behave based on these centres of power. Media is concentrated in a few hands and that worked for many years. It was very easy to control the narrative because people had no way of speaking back to you.

And then comes social media where everyone has a voice. We can say whatever we want, do whatever we want and you can’t do anything. That completely shifted the power from these few people that were managing the media, the media conglomerate shifted and put the power in the hands of the masses. The people.

That changes everything. The people saying you better listen to us because if you don’t, we can destroy you.

RK: We can wreck you in a few minutes.

SN: That power shift, and it is more like an imbalance because the majority are the ones who have the power now. The only way the government can control is through regulation, shutting down, taxing it…

Even in the bible, the tower of Babel, the guys were building a tower to reach God. He was like these guys are too much. Let me confuse them. When people unite behind a particular cause or hashtag, there is tremendous power behind that.

The initial thing then is how do we respond? The response took a hike; it happened suddenly. Because there were no plans for it.

RK: But you see, it’s not necessarily suddenly. I remember in 2007, I was very fascinated by Facebook and the reason I was fascinated is because I was having immediate conversations with my brother who lives in Denmark and we were exchanging pictures and it was fascinating. Why is it that people did not see it in 2004 when it started? Why is it that we take so long especially mainstream businesses? What is it that they don’t see?

SN: I think part of it is the assumption that it’s something that is going to pass. It was seen as a thing among people with nothing to do with brands. The inability then to see changes were happening in the digital space, honestly, you cannot blame people for what was happening because it was not expected. Initially, those were good excuses but like now in 2021, there is no excuse. Everything is out there.

RK: Do you remember that campaign we did of selfies?

SN: Yes I remember.

RK: There were two interesting experiences I cannot forget. I was in Kenya at the Conference Centre. Then I saw my friend Manoa, who used to be the Press Secretary for Uhuru, I asked him to get me a selfie moment with Uhuru to which he okayed. But the President wouldn’t understand what that was about. Just told him to look in the phone and that was it. The same situation arose with President Museveni in Arua, he was puzzled.

But the thing I want to ask you Susan, even up to now, there are very few CEOs on social media who are engaging and there is a shortage of marketing people engaging.

SN: It is still a thing of it’s for those people, we don’t understand those things. And for larger organisations, it is even harder. It’s like an elephant versus a dog situation. It is easier to turn a dog than it is to turn an elephant. But it is just a whole lack of appreciation of what the future is and what tremendous gains there are. And what set of innovations can we have for the business which is quite scary because you are like you cannot be this out of touch with reality. You cannot keep saying these things are for the West. I can’t find a word for it.

RK: I will tell you what it is. I know English like you know French. The word is moribund.

Susan, I will tell you this. These spaces we are having, 20 years ago, people would be on their radios. You and I would be sitting somewhere in a studio purporting to have this conversation. Right now, I don’t even know where you are. The other day, I was packed by the roadside.

Susan, most of the people here are looking at re-inventing themselves, how can they use social media to leverage themselves?

SN: Well, you must have a plan. What is the plan? Brands have vision statements and mission statements, value prepositions. These are things I learned when we did The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People with Francis. It is important to know what your vision, what are you trying to re-invent yourself at. But the key question here is the big why. Why do you want to re-invent yourself? Why do you want that to be your brand?  If you don’t have a solid “why”, you will go with everything that comes your way. You take on a personality where people cannot figure you out.

When I read Barrack Obama’s autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, I realised then that intentionality is very crucial. There was nothing accidental. He was very intentional from the beginning.

For anybody who is going to create a brand that stands out, whether personal, corporate or institutional, you have to be intentional. Focus and stay the course. There are always ups and downs, but you have to stay the course. You know what your vision is your mission and where you are going. Be intentional about who you are, where you are going and what you want to achieve.

When you see big brands, even in a recession they are advertising, it is not because they have extra money to spend, no. It is because if you are not at the top of your customer’s mind, the competition will do that. I was reading a research where Coca-Cola decided to cut back on its marketing and PepsiCo decided to continue and they lost market share because of that.

We’ve got to be in spaces where we are constantly reviewing, changing, and adapting because everything else outside there is also constantly changing. Do not be like Nokia. Effectiveness versus efficiency. You can be effective in doing the right thing but ineffective in doing them at the wrong time. The whole thing about effectiveness comes from focus and intentionality.

I am also a firm believer in self-belief. A company comes from nowhere and just starts. We were part of the early days of MTN and there was nothing impossible.

RK: Those were crazy times. For me; the arrival of the FM radio stations, the arrival of telecoms and the whole explosion of the internet have all redefined branding.

SN: You don’t want to be the one who misses the language of opportunity.

RK: Oh wow! What’s that?

SN: You have to be able to understand opportunity when it presents itself and what it will say to you. As it is right now, all the technology, the innovation, it is saying things to companies and people. If you don’t understand the language of opportunity, it’s going to skip you by. You will look back and ask, what happened?’ ‘Where are our customers?’

When you see the opportunity ask yourself; “what must I do?” like now. For example, we are living in between lockdowns and the musicians went to sleep because they can’t do live shows so they went somewhere to seek handouts, how is that even an option?

Since when are concerts all about live events?  Many of them have failed to see the opportunities that present themselves with all these virtual spaces.

RK: The musicians you described are symptomatic of people of a certain attitude where for a long time, musicians have sung at fans. When the conversation comes for those people to have a back and forth, they don’t know what to do. In a context that doesn’t allow them to talk back to others, they cannot understand it, they just collapse.

The two things I wanted to say to you, Susan, are;

  1. We said earlier on the democratization of the media space by technology, those days you had to sit down and listen to the BBC. Brenda Ntambirweki is a lawyer by day and a broadcaster by night. She is now in the same category as Nancy Kacungira and Rachael Akidi. See what GeorgeThePoet did the other day.
  2. There are two extreme categories of people. Some just waste time with social media and some don’t know what to do. They just say anything that comes. Not substantial.

So I want you to take this conversation towards intention, how can you be intentional about the message that is part of the larger whatever you are crafting?

SN: There Is what we call the copycat mentality. I open a shop and you see it doing well, you open a shop too. That goes back to the why! Why am I doing this? I did some social media training in Mityana last year for rural youth, it was clear that they were on social media, and it was a very interesting session. Most of it was in Luganda as we talked about English things. But that training was very important. Most young people don’t realise that we are personal brands. You and I know that before you hire someone today, you first check out their social media brand. You want to know how crazy this person is. 

RK: I used to tell guys that you find a CEO dressed in USD 1000 but won’t spend USD 100 to make himself look good on social media.

SN: Those are things that have to be borne in mind. That is where the why begins, know where you are going. Ask yourself, what do I want people to say of me? That then begins the conversation. If you want people to view you as a motivational speaker, it better be only on social media, it should be seen through you.

RK: But also when people look at you and you don’t give them strength, that too is demotivating.

Comrade Otoa: Our generation is overwhelmed with new social media channels; how would one redefine your brand after it has been damaged? 2) Can we discard word of mouth as a means of communication?

SN: Tony is such a brand.

RK: He is. The only thing is he doesn’t know whether it is him who is a brand for the meat or the meat for him.

SN: I have seen the intentionality about him marketing himself. I will mention his 5amClub, the SME support, and roast over the weekend. Find a few things on which you want your brand to be built. And without going into detail, the personal brand also shows the family and social aspects. That authentic part is what makes it so believable.

Authenticity is key in building personal brands.

People change. Look at Bobi Wine. He did a complete 360. If you want to see a change, look at him as a case study. It was very deliberate, focused, and intentional. And it paid off great dividends.

Word of mouth has never gone away. I belong to BNI which is the world’s largest referral market purely based on word of mouth to build business. It is a strategy. BNI encourages us to have a word-of-mouth marketing strategy. For all marketing, there should be a strategy. BNI is more than 35 years old, we pivoted it online in lockdown. We did USD 17bn last year among members. Have a strategy on what is going to work.

Dark & Lovely: In favour of SMEs, despite the contributions of social media to social and economic growth, SMEs still face the challenge of having tech-savvy personnel. Where should they start from?

SN: I don’t see that. There is all this training by Google and Blu Flamingo on how to effectively use digital skills. The Innovation Village also has a program. I don’t think the talent is not there, it’s where you are looking that is the question. We now have a gig economy; they may not be available full time but they can be found.

Paul: What is the role of marketing at the moment with all that is happening in the world?

2) What does someone who is pursuing marketing have to do to rise to the ranks of CMO?

SN: The role of marketing has not changed. It is the environment that has. Marketing is there to create a preference for your product or service, whether it is in lockdown or not. Marketing has to adapt to the new environment.

2) Marketing is a passion. I never got any marketing qualifications until the end of my corporate career. It’s a passion. My boss at MTN Eric Vanvin, was an engineer without a marketing background. You have to be hungry and intuitive. You have to be willing to take pay cuts. Look at where you are going and be intentional about it.

Hassan Kibirango: I have been living and working in Kigali for 13 years and one thing Rwanda has nailed is to use Social Media to boost tourism and it is paying off. How should Uganda leverage on that?

SN: Branding a country, Rwanda is a classic example. When you are in an organisation, marketing is not left to the marketing department alone. It involves everyone starting with the security guard. It is one thing to say to visit Uganda and another thing to go online and find sad images of Uganda. It is the responsibility of everybody to build the Brand Uganda. Do your part where you are. We have everything going for us. If Uganda didn’t have those good things, why do you think visitors don’t want to leave? We know what’s good for the country.

Tugume Haward: How do you judge between social dogmas in this age of social media?

SN: Look at yourself as a company with a value proposition. How is the world going to know that Susan was here?

Ivan: How early or late should we expose children to social media?

SN: We had done a good job until lockdown happened. They had to go to Zoom and that changed the game and it is never going back. They are exposed and it is here to stay. Our children are already exposed due to the school going online. The thing now is to check how to make it safe. Parents are the guilty ones.

RK: Thank you Susan for doing this.

SN: Thank you, Robert. Thank you for enhancing my brand.

3 thoughts on “Susan Nsibirwa on Branding in the Age of Social Media

  1. Susan, thank you so much for the topic on Branding in the age of Social Media #360Mentor spaces. Very insightful indeed and I was particularly taken up with the language of opportunity, marketing isn’t the preserve of the marketing department as everyone within the company is marketing it and intentionality of personal branding.

    Thank you 😊

  2. Susan, I searched for this and eventually found it. Your ideas are palatable. Applying wuth intentionality stood out the most for me.
    Thank you

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