Blue State Ideals, Red State Products. Nike Gets Political.

Think of football. What comes to mind?

Your favorite college or professional team, perhaps? Go deeper.

The sport is played everywhere across our country, but if you had to literally put it on the map, where would it go? Having grown up in New York, I was a diehard Giants fan until shifting my allegiances to the Los Angeles Rams last year. Having now lived in L.A. longer than any other place in my life, I thought that it might be a good time to root for the home teams. And besides – the Mets, Giants, Knicks and Rangers stink.

But I don’t think of New York or L.A. when I think of football. I think of Texas, and Alabama. Ohio, Michigan and South Bend. The heartland. Deep red states where you don’t rise for the national anthem at your own risk.

Is Nike giving the middle finger to all these people? Is this a good idea?

Beyond athletic aspiration, Nike has embraced something much bigger: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

Taken on its own, who wouldn’t endorse that notion? Isn’t our way of life worth sacrificing everything? But paste it over Colin Kaepernick’s photo and it means something else entirely. This is more than personal aspiration. It’s blatantly political.

I was listening to Lovett or Leave It, an entertaining and sometimes enlightening podcast from a very left perspective, where they commented on a Fox & Friends segment focusing on this campaign. (“Think they liked it?”) One of the Fox panelists seemed to agree with me that the “sacrifice” idea was sound, but felt that the choice of spokesperson was off. A far better spokesperson, according to this man, would be Jesus. I’m not making that up.

The Internet exploded after this ad ran with lots of back and forth and alternative facts. An op-ed in the Washington Post claimed it was a huge mistake, citing a study by a Republican pollster that measured a “nearly 50 percent decline in Nike’s favorability after announcing the Kaepernick ad campaign…(and) consumer interest in buying Nike products drop(ping) by 10 percentage points.”

Then again, NBC reported that “Nike sales are up 31 percent since the Kaepernick campaign” along with a 10 percent increase in the number of Nike customers versus the general public who say a company should take a stand on social issues.

I believe that Nike is doing the right thing for the world and for its brand, in that order. Great brands have always transcended functional benefits and stood or something bigger than categories and products.

An Adweek piece contrasts Nike’s singular perspective with the wishy-washy response from the NFL.

“Perhaps because of this tactic—trying not to anger anyone and ending up pleasing no one—the NFL’s reputation is in a more fragile state on both sides of the issue. Those who are anti-Kaepernick are angry that the NFL didn’t do more to stop these protests, while his supporters wish the league had offered these players further support.”

All we can do now is speculate, but it seems to me that we’ll look back and see that Nike was not only on the right side of history, but this bold move only served to strengthen an already strong brand. The crazies will burn their Nike apparel and threaten boycotts, but the Kaepernick ad will build stronger bonds with current customers and convert a good deal of brand switchers.

Nike is in complete control of this conversation and everyone else is on the defensive.

What’s more interesting about this issue is the bigger picture – the role of corporations in setting the political agenda and social mores. A dearth of moral leadership, the erosions of government, religious and social institutions, and the fecklessness and corruption of our political leaders has opened the door for corporations to set the social agenda.

I am confused, conflicted and altogether uncomfortable about this.

Yes, as a marketer and marketing professor, I am all for brands standing for something bigger. Without the larger purpose of a “brand ideal,” it’s likely you’ll just be another “me too,” generic brand. Disney isn’t about theme park rides and movies, it’s about magic. Starbucks is more than a cup of coffee, it’s community. Apple isn’t about computing or phone calls, it’s about personal expression and creativity.

When brands stake out this higher ground, it’s tough for competitors to ever catch up.

But until recently, these choices weren’t political. The magic of Disney, the personal aspiration of Nike, the community of Starbucks, the creativity of Apple – these ideals were more or less universally embraced.

Now those universal values are giving way to partisanship. Mea culpa. I got my deposit on a Tesla 3 refunded a few weeks ago when I learned that Elon Musk was donating to Republicans. Several rational reasons to do this had already been in place. Musk is tweeting about taking the company private, smoking weed on podcasts and by all accounts, seems to be falling off the deep end. Not to mention the company’s well documented production problems.  Seems I could live with that, but donations to Republicans? Horrors!

Has it come to this? Brands are now red and blue too? That seems to be the case. And it will stay this way for the foreseeable future. It’s no surprise, as marketing is always influenced by politics and the popular culture. Nike and other socially active marketers are simply filling a void and seizing an opportunity.

In a deeply divided country growing more tribal by the moment, digging in and choosing a side will get people’s attention. Honestly, if I had been working with Nike on this campaign, I would have been a big proponent of the approach and I would have felt great about it. They had the guts to jump on a hot button issue and celebrate someone who is a villain to many – including the President of the United States – as a hero.

Good for them. People forget that Muhammed Ali was hated in the 60’s. Nike will be on the right side of history and they’ll move a lot of merchandise.

Will the pendulum swing back the other way? Will we get over Trump and let ourselves be reunited? We’ve been a sharply divided country since the Revolution. The existential crisis of World War II brought us together for a while, but in the big scheme of things, the moment was fleeting.

How I would love to be Don Draper, the guy who wrote the famous feelgood “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coke ad and bring everyone together. (Yes, he wrote it, Look it up.) Kumbaya! Let’s promote build our brands by loving our neighbors and promoting world peace.

“Nike. Because competition makes us all stronger.”

“McDonald’s. Comfort food makes us all kinder.”

“Apple. The creativity to make the world a better place.”

“Google. Connecting us all.”

I wish. But I think we’ll be choosing sides for a while. Our corporate and personal brands will just have to let the chips fall and solider on.

2 Comments
  • Freddy J. Nager, Founder, Atomic Tango LLC
    Posted at 09:50h, 12 September Reply

    Another great post, Jeff! I heard someone say that all brands are now political — a bit of an exaggeration, perhaps. (Last I checked, my deodorant didn’t have a stance on anything but keeping me from smelling like an aardvark.) But other brands will likely be pulled into the fray, whether they like it or not. For example, USC tries to stay politically balanced, but the USC Bookstore has an entire prime space devoted to Nike. I’m sure some conservative Trojans will glare whenever they see that space; but other Trojans would scream bloody murder if it were taken down. What’s a student bookstore to do? On a national front, I’m guessing other sportswear companies are now discussing their relationships with athletes and their own socio-political positions. New Balance, for example, has been unwittingly dragged into being the MAGA shoe of choice. Will it quietly embrace this position? So much to think about for brand managers these days beyond whether they should be allocating more money to digital or traditional. And I endorse that.

    • jbhirsch
      Posted at 10:39h, 12 September Reply

      Thank you Freddy. You make a great point at the repercussions spreading to partners and retailers.

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