In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police, many companies that previously shied away from incorporating social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement into their branding and marketing have embraced them to make their positions on these seismic matters clear to consumers.
However, one company has consistently been ahead of the swoosh on bold branding and PR on social matters – Nike. Nike was widely recognized for using the controversy of the NBA’s 1985 ban on the Air Jordan shoe line to create advertisements for years.
In 2018, the company’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” ad featured activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was rejected by the league for taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of injustice and police brutality. A bold move for a major supplier for the NFL, Nike’s act helped push the league to make a statement acknowledging the protestors.
Significantly, Nike has a history of turning its bold statements on social controversy into greater revenues. There are two broad, strategic maneuvers that Nike has made that other companies could benefit from learning about and making.
More Representation in Front of and Behind the Scenes
From featuring the first transgender male athlete to make a U.S. National team to the 2020 “For Once, Don’t Do It” ad, in light of racism and national unrest, Nike has shown a consistent willingness to amplify marginalized stories, increase representation and create dialogue around social issues we face.
This is not to say that the brand is always true to the vision it portrays. In 2019, former Nike-sponsored athlete Alysia Montano wrote a New York Times op-ed revealing that the company informed her that, if she had a baby during her running career, it would pause her contract and stop paying her. Nike has since expanded protections for pregnant women.
Behind the scenes, the company is working toward greater equity for employees and maintaining pay equity and increasing diversity among vice presidents by gender and race from 2018 to 2019. The company also gives back through community grants and donations.
Risking Short-Term Loss for Long-Term Gain
The Kaepernick ad sparked widespread praise and outrage. Initially, Nike’s stock price dropped, and the social media outcry spawned a negative hashtag, a brand boycott and people filming themselves burning their Nike shoes and apparel.
The ad created dialogue around the brand and resonated with consumers – a fact that has grounding in survey data. For example, a Sprout Social study found that, when consumers were asked about the importance of brands taking a stance on social/political issues, two-thirds found it to be “Somewhat Important” or “Very Important.” Given this and the current U.S. social and political climate, it should come as no surprise to see Coca Cola and Airbnb make bold statements on topics previously avoided.
By deploying Colin Kaepernick and other instances of social unrest in branding, Nike has been able to raise its brand profile, increase social media engagement, and create a good publicity baseline. And, with consumers who are digitally immersed and socially conscious, Nike’s choices to support marginalized athletes and take strong positions on social issues has and will likely continue to benefit them.