What Lessons Marketers Can Learn From Nike About Cause Marketing

Opinion: The Colin Kaepernick ad can guide others in creating similar strategies

Colin Kaepernick isn’t the only one who is sacrificing everything for the latest Nike campaign. With its shares down more than 3 percent at the close of the bell on the day after its polarizing Kaepernick campaign was announced, Nike has sacrificed short-term shareholder value for the possibility of long-term loyalty with millennial consumers.

The campaign, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of “Just Do It,” isn’t the leading athletic wear brand’s first foray into advertising that aims to convert hate into strength. With past ads that include a women-in-sports ad that featured Arab female athletes wearing headdresses and the brand’s “Find Your Greatness” campaign featuring teenagers struggling with obesity, Nike has consistently won the hearts of consumers with bold campaigns that highlight the plight of hate-related causes.

Jeetendr Sehdev, The New York Times bestselling author of The Kim Kardashian Principle and celebrity branding authority, spoke exclusively about Nike’s unique approach to cause-related marketing. A guiding principle of his book is to “sacrifice everything if you believe in something,” which is eerily similar to the tagline for Nike’s campaign with Kaepernick, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Sehdev said, “That was my exact vision for the book: to not only empower leading marketers to think differently about building brands but also to change the culture.”

Nike has consistently won the hearts of consumers with bold campaigns that highlight the plight of hate-related causes.

The subject of brands taking a stand to change culture has become increasingly prominent over the past few years. A 2017 Boston Consulting Group study shows that millennials are more likely to participate in cause-related campaigns and to adopt products made by brands who focus on cause marketing. So, as brand marketers start to follow the lead of brands like Nike and incorporate more provocative, cause-related work, there are a few best practices that can increase the likelihood of campaign success.

Identify a cause that is authentic to your brand (and to your consumers) 

Which causes are your consumers most engaged with? Racial issues? LGBT? Body shaming? Mental illness? Rather than a group of marketers determining the cause they think is right, collect a statistically relevant sample of consumer survey data from your target audience and ask them about a wide variety of social causes. Find out what they care about. Taking a data-driven approach to cause marketing will ultimately yield stronger results.

Lean on a history of cause-related content

Don’t let a major advertising campaign be the first time that you’ve ventured into the world of cause marketing. Start experimenting with cause-related content on social, where you can segment your audience and perform small tests. From there, branch into digital and consider a full-blown advertising campaign only once you’ve seen success. It is imperative that you have built an authentic dialogue with consumers so that they don’t view the campaign as a self-serving publicity stunt.

Be prepared for the backlash

Sehdev says, “brands should expect [the backlash] and embrace it. Thanks to social media, backlash is just a way of life today, and if you’re not being hated, you’re not in the game. Besides, indifference translates into not being honest.”

Having a solid crisis management plan along with a solid social listening protocol are both crucial. These are areas where bigger brands will be better equipped, so as a small brand, make sure you have enough resources to respond to negative commentary, in the case the campaign becomes truly viral.

And if you are a small brand who is willing to take on this strategy, try pitching your story to local publications first. “Never underestimate small news organizations. Social media and newswires can take your story global, fast,” says Rick Amme, founder of crisis management and media relations firm Amme and Associates.

If you are considering launching a provocative, cause-related campaign, even one that aims to convert hate into strength, you may be met with short-term setbacks that will seem like a distant memory once you win over the hearts and minds of millennial consumers.