Suleman Momoh’s mark is everywhere. It’s more popular than the official brand Nigeria icon (Good People, Great Nation) that was forged in 2008 in the kiln of national politics and force-fed with a portion of the budget that should have left normal people constipated for days. Even the Dangote group, probably oblivious of where the artwork came from, prefer to stamp this exact ‘Proudly Nigerian’ ‘logo’ on their goods.
Over the years, though, as the original file passed from hand to hand and gradually degenerated, other artists have attempted a recreation but, largely, they have failed. Ain’t nothing like the real deal, you see.
This beloved Proudly Nigerian iconography came from a mix of humble and elevated beginnings. Its provenance is similar to that of the trademarked I♥NY logo, which currently earns the State of New York about $30million every year from the sale of merchandise.
The man behind I♥NY, like Momoh, started with a brief that’d been dispatched to an ad agency.
In 1976, New York, in the middle of an economic crisis and city rotting away from crime and dirt, commissioned ad agency Wells Rich Greene to design a tourism campaign for the state and city. Wells Rich Greene’s big idea was I LOVE NEW YORK, executed via a jingly theme song and an inspirational commercial.
The agency reached out to artist Milton Glaser to create a visual anchor for the marketing campaign. As Glaser rode to the meeting in the back of a taxi, he doodled the letters and heart symbol in a straight line on the back of an envelop. Then later, he thought, why not stack ’em? You know, like the unmissable LOVE sculpture, recently installed, in Philadelphia.
Glaser’s icon, intended to run only for months, has instead electrified pop culture for 46 years. Glaser, on the other hand, because he chose to do the job pro-bono, hasn’t made anything off it.
Except high praise and recognition, of course. Glaser, a cofounder of New York Magazine and notable for other epic works of art, became, in 2009, the first graphic designer to be awarded the American National Medal of Arts.
As you might have guessed, however, Suleman Momoh’s design hasn’t found such a satisfying denouement.
Although his career as an art director has been quite stellar– he’s been an executive director (the highest position in the agency setting aside from COO and CEO) at Nitro 121 (the ad agency previously known as 141 Worldwide) — and the campaign for which he and Steve Babaeko dreamt up the Proudly Nigerian tagline did so well the commissioning client, British American Tobacco, had to order a sequel, the legacy of that work, which has been the most beloved by most Nigerians, has not received the attention it deserved by the powers that be.
When Kingsley Wheaton, the BAT marketing director, briefed Prima Garnet Ogilvy to help sell Nigerians on locally manufactured cigarettes, the agency came up with the theme: “Nigerians Know When To Think Nigeria”. Which was an absolute truth.
When it comes to Afrobeat, dresses, Nigerian-made electric cables, the talking drum, Nollywood, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, and pidgin English, Nigerians do know when to choose made-in-Nigeria over imported merchandise. BAT’s promise, though not expressly stated in the ads, was that it would make cigarettes in Nigeria that wouldn’t just be completely Nigerian but also world-class.
“Steve Babaeko and I worked on the concept then,” Suleman says. “I researched what other countries were doing to inspire their citizens to embrace patriotism and I came across different slogans. The one that resonated amongst us was ‘Proudly Nigerian’ It wasn’t a mouthful and it sounded great.”
This happened in 2002 when Babaeko and Momoh were both senior managers (middle managers) in the creative department of Prima Garnet. PG would later spin out 141 Worldwide as part of a global rearrangement in the WPP network. In 2005, BAT, fuelled by the nationwide adoration the Proudly Nigerian received, asked 141 Worldwide to go for round two.
It wasn’t lost on BAT that they were on to a phenomenon. They wished the country would just officially adopt their logo and campaign. But that’s all they could do: wish.
As Suleman recalls, “We wanted to go the whole hog on it but BAT was careful because on the legal restrictions on [tobacco advertising]. They were concerned that people might think pushing the Proudly Nigerian icon would amount to subliminal advertising.”
Which is why it’s an interesting thing that the logo would take on a life of its own, outside Momoh and Babaeko, and with zero push to that effect by Prima Garnet/141 Worldwide or British American Tobacco. Everywhere you go these days, 18 years since it was first launched, the Proudly Nigerian logo is alive and okay.
It has survived two sloganeering attempts by the Nigerian government– one under President Olusegun Obasanjo, and another under President Umar Musa Yaradua, mostly because, like I♥NY, ‘Proudly Nigerian’ logo is sustained by an undeniable truth. New Yorkers truly love New York. Nigerians know when to think Nigeria.
So, if someone were to give Momoh a blank cheque, what would he do with this logo in 2020? “I would make it a national icon, adapted by the government and Nigerians,” he says. “I’d create a brand manual that would guide our nation towards building a Nigeria that we’d all be proud of by 2030.”
Perhaps then, Nigerians would be in a position to make a tidy sum year on year from cultural merch emblazoned with ‘Proudly Nigerian’.
Milton Glaser passed away on 26 June 2020. May he rest in peace.