The Swoosh in Lagos and Accra – The symbol of greatness

Words: Carmen Politan

Our Banana Burger icon talks to the fascinating metamorphosis that branding and graphics experience across the continent. We asked Carmen Politan to explain a little more.

I’m writing this article from Amsterdam, where I’m sitting at my desk having a coffee surrounded by other creatives. Most have Macbooks. And most of these are personalised with stickers from brands their users identify with or want to be associated with. In this cafe, I spot stickers of Patta, Vans, Palace, and Supreme for the real Hypebeasts.

In both Lagos and Accra, where I spend a lot of time researching fashion and music, it’s not the laptops that I see being personalised. It’s the vehicles, mainly public transport vehicles, which all carry these stickers - they’re a feast for the eye. The stickers aren’t gifts from popular brands; they’re locally made. They look rich and somehow alive. The words on the stickers are inspiring philosophies and biblical sayings; they dominate the streets [‘Black is Black’, ‘Holy Ghost’, ‘Cut your coat according to your size’ or ‘Nyame Tease’] and appear next to stickers of popular superstars like Stonebwoy, Naira Marley or Wizkid. Amongst a lot of the celebration of local and cultural pride, I also see popular western brands represented. I’ve spotted the Apple logo, the stripes of adidas (often as reflector in Accra), the Jordan and Supreme logo. One logo that I have seen often, in both cities, in different shapes and sizes, is the Nike logo: the Swoosh.

Images: ​​Coco Olakunle

At first, I didn’t think much of it. Later, when I realised Nike doesn’t have a single store in Accra or Lagos, I was surprised. How can its brand presence be so strong – in both cities. so strong, in fact, that people have even started to design their own Swooshes. This emerging trend gave me a reason to dig deeper, to try and understand the popularity and the meaning of the brand locally.

If you want a Nike product and you live in Lagos or Accra, there are a few options: (1) find a new item in a privately-owned boutique that personally imports Nike products, (2) get a second-hand item at the market (a ‘donated’ item from abroad), (3) ask someone that’s traveling to Lagos to bring it in from outside or (4) get a knock-off at the market.

I always go for the third option,” Tom Saater, a photographer friend of mine replied when asked about his options. “I would order on the Nike store website or Amazon and send it to a friends’ address who is coming to Lagos or when I’m abroad I get it from a Nike store.” Over the years I have been that friend, the one who brings Nike shoes to Lagos or Accra for friends every time I travel; sometimes the requests even come in through Instagram, from people I don’t know.

Somehow I see that Swoosh being more present, more celebrated in Lagos and Accra than in Amsterdam or London - which to me is weird. In the UK and the Netherlands, Nike has Nike towns (even their EMEA HQ) and other sportswear stores that sell plenty of products that can be readily bought. I see Nike ads in magazines and on posters throughout town. We are on their marketing map whilst Accra and Lagos are not. So why is the Swoosh so persistent in their public spaces?

I started my research by documenting the Swoosh on vehicles in Lagos and Accra. Whenever I saw a nice one, while sitting in traffic, I noted it down. I also made a point, for about two years, to ask people what they thought about the Nike logo’s popularity; I wanted to understand. Last July, photographer [Dutch Nigerian] Coco Olakunle and I went to the market in Lagos to take some pictures and talk with drivers of vehicles sporting the Swoosh. With our driver [and by now friend] James we went to Balogun, the market on Lagos Island. James asked the parking guys for help: “That Nike sign, that L shape,” James said. He made the ‘tick’ mark whilst talking. “Oh, so you wan buy am. I take you there,” the guy replied. James explained we didn’t want to buy the stickers but instead wanted to photograph vehicles with the stickers on them. Our guy went back to his colleagues for a quick discussion and replied “Ok, let’s go.” We spend the afternoon walking around in streets and parking lots where danfo’s (busses), okada’s (motorbikes), and keke’s (tuktuks) were parked or passing by. Our guy was better than we could imagine. He had a focussed eye and even made passing vehicles stop so that we could take a picture “Snap am!” he shouted whenever he thought we were being too shy. In three hours we spotted over thirty vehicles, most of them parked or waiting for passengers to hop in by the side of the road. In between the pictures and walk we asked drivers and ‘our guy’ why they put the Swoosh on. ”To beautify the car,” is what we got back as replies, “to decorate” or to “funkify” as James said. But why the Swoosh?

Images: ​​Coco Olakunle

In Accra, Abena (14) said that “Nike is quality,” when researcher Sammy Otteng and I asked her about the image of the Swoosh. “It means you’re correct,” Agyare, a curious okada driver, adds. He makes the same movement James was making with his hand: the tick you get when the answer is ‘correct’. Sylvanus Tawiah (64) was chilling on a bench in a little park around the national stadium in Accra, talking to his friend. When we showed him the Swoosh he replied with “I don’t know this Adrinka symbol, I have never seen it before.” Adinkra’s are cultural symbols that carry messages or certain wisdom. They’re rooted in the different cultures in Ghana and widely used to decorate and communicate; you find them in fences, fabrics, wooden carvings, plastic chairs, and painted on houses. I thought it was an amazing association for him to make. “It’s a sign of motion and speed,” Toyko (brand representative of Elle Lokko) explains. “It’s because of football,” says a passenger who overhears us talking. “Ronaldo, he wears Nike!” another adds as they walk off.

In Lagos, we asked creatives about the popularity of the logo. “It’s the symbol of greatness,” says Em, a stylist and trend forecaster. “There are so many iconic people that have worn Nike throughout the years, it’s part of the African culture - it’s part of us,” she continues. The Nike Jersey that they made in 2018 for the national football team did a lot, according to Ronke, founder of BWL agency. She observed a growth in the love for Nike since that launch. “That was a campaign that resonated and connected with everybody from the emerging middle class and the less advantaged ones. Everybody loved the campaign, and the jersey was on fire.” The ironic bit about this, though? The kit wasn’t on sale in Lagos and the campaign only ran in the UK (for the Nigerian diaspora). In Amsterdam, my friend Siji, now a writer but formerly a brand strategist who grew up in Lagos, smiles when I mention my research. It was sometime in the mid-eighties that he got his first pair of Nikes, sent by a relative in the UK. “As a teenager back then, wearing Nikes meant that you had access to something inaccessible to most because you needed a connection to Europe or the States get them,” he says. “So Nikes were a status symbol, just as MacBooks are in Europe; a signifier of cool, of being in the know, of being part of a select group.”

I’m amazed by the brand presence Nike has in both Lagos and Accra. I mean, in Europe we consume and identify with brands by putting stickers on our laptops or phones – nothing new or different, you would think. But there is a big difference: in Europe, we have direct access to the brand’s actual products. These items are marketed directly to us, we consume their commercials and ads. If you’re in Lagos or Accra you’re not on the brand's radar. Jomi, founder of Lagosian skate brand WAF believes the logo has to do with achievement, with being recognized, “Nike is a symbol of success, through the years. Through sports, running and football. It’s the symbol of success and of swag.

Images: ​​Coco Olakunle

It all starts to make sense. Though Nike’s never been (officially) sold in Lagos or Accra, inhabitants have been consuming the brand via the success of (mainly sports) people. “We have a collection of associations and experiences that define a brand and determine our identification with it,” Siji explains. He remembers when NBA basketball began gaining an audience among teenagers in Nigeria. “Sports brands were competing for NBA players to endorse their shoes, in the hope of emulating Nike’s instant success with Michael Jordan.” Etonic signed Hakeem Olajuwon, a Nigerian player drafted by the Houston Rockets. “Lagosians saw Olajuwon with Etonics and the brand gained awareness in Lagos,” even though you couldn’t buy the shoes there. But this didn’t last. “Associations must be sustained, and Etonic had nothing in Lagos beyond the initial connection to Olajuwon — no campaigns filtering through from the States, no news, no visibility, which is exactly what Nike has always done well.”

Since the start, Nike has associated its brand with successful professionals in sports, something that’s widely consumed everywhere in the world—including in Lagos and Accra. So that settles it: the Swoosh is for winners.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carmen is a style anthropologist, content creator, writer and part-time deejay. Her most recent venture,realfakeshoes, is a creative agency that she launched with a group of like-minded professionals from Amsterdam, Lagos and Accra, the three cities in which she conducts most of her work. The aim is to conceptualise and produce original, real fake and relevant content that dissolves the boundaries between music, fashion, youth subcultures and commerce.

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