The security industry: A perception, or a reality?
Events in Paris last weekend have focussed the western world on security once again. Here in East Africa, we face our own such challenges. They are no less serious for attracting less global publicity coverage. Although many of us involved in promoting tourism as a key contributor to our regional economies may be permitted a sigh while we wait for travel advisories to be imposed on Paris.
Have you noticed recently how many people have been taken off our streets, to be put right back on our streets wearing some form of security company uniform? My goodness, the ‘askari’ business certainly seems to be making good money these days. But I wonder. What is their promise, and how well are they really delivering?
When I first began to visit Uganda, perhaps twenty years ago, there was scarcely a shop without an NRA soldier posted outside. Perched on plastic chairs, enjoying the sun, and cradling an alarming selection of shotguns and military weapons in their arms, we all took these gentlemen quite seriously. They had the appearance of men who knew how to use firearms and had had experience of so doing. They handled their worn and polished weapons with confidence, control and respect. Unlike so many of the police we see in Kenya, strolling down the street swinging their rifles from languid arms, like fashion accessories.
The Westgate attack removed from Kenyans the last hope that their salvation lay in the hands of the disciplined services. That is a grave pity; because it means that any other security measure we see lack consequence. From being asked to exit your car upon entrance to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (except when it is raining) to permit a magic red light to scan the vehicle thoroughly. To being stopped on your entrance to the mall and swept with a wand that always seems to beep … that beep clearly signifying nothing.
So, apart from taking the unemployed off the streets and creating a parallel industry in quasi-military fashion, what are our many private security companies actually doing for us? (By the way, on the matter of uniforms, a very experienced security company MD once told me that the effectiveness of security staff was usually in inverse proportion to the smartness of their uniforms!)
Well the answer is probably ‘creating an impression of security’. That certainly is what the proprietors of large commercial premises say, when they bemoan the additional cost incurred. I suppose there is some value in that, but it’s a very little value.
We all have daily experiences of gaps in delivery. I thought the ‘fast-track pass’ through screening at shopping malls was only offered to ‘wazungu’ until I saw three towering Somali men, resplendent in white dish dashes, sail past a deferential security man last week. And in the same week a friend of mine, a licensed firearms user, dropped into a mall car park to visit an ATM - quite forgetting that his ‘bunduki’ was in the car boot. He needn’t have worried. The man with the mirror on a stick and no lights behind his eyes simply lifted the shotgun in order to examine the spare tyre under the boot carpet. Satisfied that the tyre was unlikely to pose a threat to Sunday morning shoppers, he lowered the shotgun, closed the boot and cheerily waved the car on.
When it comes to assessing the marketing of security companies you have to be fair. I mean, if you offer no real purpose or service delivery then it is quite hard to communicate any brand value. It doesn’t help that the security industry is completely commoditised and has spent the last 20 years dabbling in technology while competing on price for physical guarding contracts.
But you do have to be firm too. Any industry that markets itself by showing pictures of what it does (cue dogs, security guards marching with legs and arms akimbo, and staple images of liveried security vehicles) shows a staggering disregard for the intelligence of its customers. Guess what? We all know the trappings of commercial security, and we are now all painfully aware of its shortcomings.
So, to the management of security companies whose hearts swell as they watch another class of nitwits march off the parade square, I’m tempted to offer this advice. None of this matters a jot to us, your customers. What might impress us is that you stop trading on our fears and start developing an offering that has a demonstrable benefit.
Technology that works? Intelligence gathering that forestalls disaster? Collaboration with the disciplined services that delivers a real sanction to evildoers? In short, something other than a silly beret and a half-cocked salute.
Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising, most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people. www.thebrandinside.com
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