South African chain in D.C. serves its chicken with cheeky po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - RYAN LENORA BROWN for­eign@wash­post.com

jo­han­nes­burg — As Wash­ing­ton be­gan gear­ing up in mid-January for Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­tial in­au­gu­ra­tion, black signs ap­peared qui­etly in the win­dows of the six D.C. out­posts of Nando’s, a South African chicken restau­rant, and got tucked into the pages of 60,000 copies of Ex­press, a free com­muter news­pa­per pub­lished by The Wash­ing­ton Post.

On one side of the sign was an un­branded red heart and a block of text pro­claim­ing via hash­tag: “Ev­ery­one is wel­come.”

“Nando’s Peri-Peri is an im­mi­grant em­ploy­ing, gay lov­ing, Mus­lim re­spect­ing, racism op­pos­ing, equal pay­ing, mul­ti­cul­tural chicken restau­rant where #Every­oneIsWel­come,” ex­plained the back of the sign. “On January 20th, place this sign in a pub­licly vis­i­ble place to let ev­ery­one vis­it­ing our city know that #Every­oneIsWel­come.”

That out­spo­ken­ness wouldn’t come as a sur­prise to South Africans, for whom Nando’s — a home­grown icon turned in­ter­na­tional chain — has long been syn­ony­mous with the sort of ir­rev­er­ent so­cial com­men­tary more com­monly served up by co­me­di­ans and po­lit­i­cal car­toon­ists than by restau­rants, how­ever ca­sual.

In one of the com­pany’s more in­fa­mous South African ads, for in­stance, a pen­sive Robert Mu­gabe, the 90-some­thing pres­i­dent of Zim­babwe, sits by him­self in an empty din­ing room, rem­i­nisc­ing about his friend­ships with a cast of nowde­posed or dead fel­low dic­ta­tors. As Mary Hop­kins’s “Those Were the Days” plays, Mu­gabe flashes back to a wa­ter­gun fight with Moam­mar Gaddafi, a rau­cous night of karaoke with Mao Ze­dong and a day spent mak­ing sand an­gels with Sad­dam Hus­sein.

As the screen flicks back to the present, a voice opines, “No one should ever have to eat alone, so get a Nando’s six-pack meal for six.” The ad gen­er­ated so much con­tro­versy in Zim­babwe for its per­ceived dis­re­spect to­ward Mu­gabe that it was quickly pulled from the air.

The restau­rant’s iden­tity owes much to the tim­ing of its es­tab­lish­ment in the late 1980s, dur­ing the dy­ing days of apartheid rule. The chain, whose main of­fer­ing is Mozam­bi­canstyle spicy chicken, grew up with South Africa’s rowdy young democ­racy, when an ir­rev­er­ence for the pow­er­ful was stitched into the so­cial fab­ric. It quickly de­vel­oped a brand­ing style with an ado­les­cent mouthi­ness to match its coun­try’s.

In re­cent years, Nando’s ads have fea­tured acer­bically witty takes on cor­rup­tion, cen­sor­ship and South Africa’s nag­ging xeno­pho­bia cri­sis. In the xeno­pho­bia ad, a voice-over tells for­eign­ers: “You must all go back to where you came from.” Group by group, the coun­try’s im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing white set­tlers and even most of its black res­i­dents, dis­ap­pear in puffs of white smoke, leav­ing only a na­tive Khoisan man stand­ing alone in an empty land­scape. “Real South Africans love di­ver­sity,” the ad con­cludes. “That’s why we have in­tro­duced two more items.”

“Nando’s has re­ally got­ten un­der the skin of so­ci­ety here,” says Andy Rice, a brand­ing ex­pert in Jo­han­nes­burg. But its cam­paigns, he points out, aren’t just about tak­ing an ab­stract moral stance. They have helped the com­pany carve out a unique com­mer­cial space in a coun­try crowded with other fast-food out­lets hawk­ing chicken and fries.

“When a big is­sue hits the pa­pers, peo­ple are al­ready guess­ing what Nando’s re­ac­tion will be,” Rice said. “That sells.”

For Nando’s, which now has about 1,200 lo­ca­tions glob­ally, that’s ex­actly the point: to tap into the “prover­bial din­ner-ta­ble con­ver­sa­tion” wher­ever one is tak­ing place, says Sepanta Bagher­pour, vice pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing at Nando’s USA and a for­mer mar­ket­ing man­ager for Nando’s South Africa.

In the United States, where the first Nando’s branch opened in 2008, the com­pany had al­ready made a few mi­nor for­ays into so­cial-com­men­tary-based ad­ver­tis­ing be­fore Trump’s as­cent to the pres­i­dency. In 2015, it cel­e­brated the le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana in the Dis­trict by giv­ing out free chicken — at 4:20 p.m. — be­cause “weed jokes are easy,” Bagher­pour said. And last year, the chain draped its D.C. restau­rants as well as its so­cial­me­dia pages in rain­bow col­ors to cel­e­brate the city’s pride day.

But as Wash­ing­ton pre­pared for Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion this month, Nando’s saw a unique chance to tar­get a far big­ger au­di­ence, ac­cord­ing to Bagher­pour.

“We thought we could in­tro­duce our­selves to all these new vis­i­tors and in a way that re­flects our val­ues as a com­pany,” he said. “If we have an op­por­tu­nity to in­tro­duce our­selves through a big­ger so­cial con­ver­sa­tion, that’s some­thing we’re in­ter­ested in do­ing.”

NANDO’S

Nando’s signs dis­played around in­au­gu­ra­tion urged in­clu­sion.

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