Nike’s decision to feature Colin Kaepernick front and center for their 30th anniversary of their famous “Just Do It” campaign is igniting conversations and debates among marketers and consumers alike. For the past few years, brands have witnessed a steady shift in culture where consumers are increasingly expressing their preference for brands to stand for something bigger than the products they sell.
Yet brands are on the fence when it comes to “taking a side” with controversial or politically polarizing issues. In the case of Nike, skeptics have been quick to point to the expected consumer backlash, featuring consumers and certain celebrities alike burning Nike products as part of an impromptu #JustBurnIt counter campaign. Seizing the chance, some Nike consumers are now using this to advocate for donating Nike apparel to those in need versus destroying it, thereby shedding light on other societal issues. While reactions can be swift and sometimes take unanticipated turns, gains can be long-term, such as when CVS stopped selling cigarettes and saw brand preference rise 50 percent as a result.
Brand purpose versus activism
It’s too early to tell if Nike’s gamble will pay off, but brands like Nike depend on being woven into the fabric of culture. The athletic wear and shoe business are incredibly competitive, and in recent years, Nike has been losing market share to rival sports apparel brands. It’s possible that making such a bold move to appeal to belief driven buyers is a calculated effort on the brand’s part, killing two birds with one stone. By both taking a definitive stance and injecting the brand into a hotly contested debate, Nike increases relevancy with what could be their future consumers.
But we can also look at Nike’s mission statement for possible deeper insight.
“Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world … by creating groundbreaking sport innovations, by making our products more sustainably, by building a creative and diverse global team and by making a positive impact in communities where we live and work.”
You can see the hint of purpose throughout the statement. But purpose can act like a spectrum, and when a brand picks a highly relevant, even polarizing issue to take a stance upon, it begins to shift into brand activism. That’s the choice Nike made when translating “making a positive impact in communities” into action. Arguably, they picked the communities they feel they can make an impact upon, while sending a message to others who may not share the same sentiment. The message is clear: “There are other choices for you.”
So, should brands “Just Do It” when it comes to taking a stand? The better question for marketers is: Can a brand be purpose-led without activism? The answer is yes, but the caveat is that the brand must know its place in the world, strive to do something bigger than itself and take action that is consistent with the values it puts forth. Standing for something bigger than yourself doesn’t mean inserting yourself into every cultural debate or ones that quickly become politicized. Brands that take bold actions venture into this territory, knowing that they’re not going to be for everybody, and stand at the ready to play a leading role in the face of cultural divide. It does come with risk but also with potential reward, depending on the motivation and authenticity of the brand’s words and deeds.
Start with why
Being an activist brand versus a purpose-led brand doesn’t have to be a binary choice. For Nike, a conscious (and probably calculated) decision was made to not sit on the sidelines, despite its relationship with the NFL and opposing consumers. Nike’s choice likely wasn’t an easy one, but it was a deliberate one. For most brands, the clarity needed doesn’t always come down to a politicized issue, rather it begins with a brand’s sense of how well they comprehend their place in the world, why they exist, who they serve and where they are uniquely equipped to make an impact. In other words, knowing their purpose.
Brands may still find themselves on the fence when it comes to controversial issues, but that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve the higher purpose they are uniquely qualified to fulfill while aligning with rising consumer expectations to stand for something bigger. Consumers increasingly want to see brands make a positive impact in line with their personal values while helping solve for societal problems.
While controversial, what Nike is doing is undeniably powerful. They’re actively confronting why they exist and which communities they support, which means they will galvanize some—and alienate others. While Nike’s stock fluctuates, they may be playing a long game, putting it on consumers to vote with their wallets or find another brand who shares their values. For many brands, there may be less controversial or politically infused areas they can positively impact, but either way, understanding why your brand exists in the first place should lay the foundation for everything it does.