Firms should be braver and more prepared to take a proactive PR position on big issues. But the key to this is knowing your customers, being prepared to take a long term view and recalling other notable things that have gone before.
It is one of the most fascinating consumer and social experiments of recent times. Nike, to all intents and purposes, pitted itself against those on the right of U.S. politics on 3 September after unveiling its campaign with Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player known for kneeling during the national anthem.
In many countries, like Britain, a sports player refusing to stand, kneel or sing along wouldn’t be news. It’s a bit like the country’s stance on banning alcohol sales to teens but selling them guns: Americans have a disproportionate sense of the importance of football and patriotism.
Yet the shares fell by 3.2 percent on 4 September after the company revealed a new ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. But after we’ve reminded ourselves that the bulk of trading in big stocks is done automatically (algorithms sell when stuff “looks bad”), let’s also remember what Kaepernick was protesting against: racially-motivated police brutality.
Sure, it’s a risk putting yourself into this kind of debate but there are three key points to make up front. First, Nike will have used tons of data to tell its marketing team what its customers think. When you sell 25 pairs of shoes a second, data tends to pile up.
Second, more than half of Nike’s customers (and growing) will be outside the States. It’s a fair assumption without any empirical data whatsoever, that the majority would back the sports brand over Donald Trump, who’s predictably criticised the firm. And third, Nike has a track record in loyalty – from standing by Maria Sharapova in the wake of her failed 2016 drug test to the back-in-form Tiger Woods, following his domestic and fitness issues.
While the Kaepernick campaign is to celebrate the 30 year anniversary of ‘Just Do It’, a slogan which came to define a generation on multiple levels, there is another important anniversary which many will remember living through but that many of Nike’s fans will have only read about.
Last April marked 25 years since the acquittal of four Los Angeles policemen — three of them white — over the savage beating of Rodney King, an African-American man. After the graphic video of the attack was broadcast, riots killed 50 and injured more than 2,000 according to CNN.
The pent up anger over racial and economic inequality which fuelled that week-long spiral of violence has been re-ignited under Trump. And while the U.S. economy has boomed, a national conversation about racial disparity and police use of force has continued today, mashed up with the wider debate around gun ownership.
Nobody, including Nike, is going to solve any of those problems with an advert.
However, through its support for Kaepernick, Nike is likely to continue to ride a wave of public support from the public it wants support from. Just as buffoons like Trump or Nigel Farage revel in being hauled over the coals by the “liberal media” so Nike is revelling in having a load of gun-toting American racists burning its trainers.
For a company that came to define a whole market through its association with legends like Michael Jordan and Carl Lewis, this shouldn’t be surprising.
Nor should Nike’s gamble here mean that every other company or brand can take similar risks. The company’s legacy and, above all, its army of high profile influencers (the roll-call of sports stars either on or hoping to be on its payroll is huge) will insulate them from criticism in a way that most companies could never dream of. Some firms can have a tendency to instantly see themselves on the same level as any consumer or lifestyle company, forgetting the degree to which a brand’s maturity and the particulars of its market place affect the dynamics of how folk interact with it.
A firm making leisure wear will invariably get more liberal support than a pharmaceutical brand or real estate company that has to be more conservative, play ball with a regulator or charm politicians. Yet ultimately, the consumer is always right and whatever one day of stock trading may have said about the Kaepernick campaign, time will prove that Nike is as well.