• Brian O'Fril

Marketing your Brand via Social Statements. Grand-standing, woke or just too many pitfalls?

The following quick thoughts relate to brands increasingly getting involved in social issues - what they say, how they say it, etc. This is increasingly relevant following recent events, especially after the killing of George Floyd in the US and the subsequent crackdowns on protesters supporting Black Lives Matter.

It goes without saying, however, that all of the related marketing arguments and discussions on the topic are nothing compared to the death of a man in such a callous and brutal manner. Please bear that in mind when reading the following.

There’s been some very interesting conversations of late about brands taking a stand on social issues.

Some companies have been criticised for seemingly jumping on the bandwagon, of being opportunist and of grand-standing. Indeed, some big names have faltered under the spotlight that inevitably came with their stance – too many old skeletons in the closet perhaps, or too much double-speak uncovered when reporters start to dig deep.

It just goes to show that when brands try to stand up for something that isn’t authentically them, many will fall down at the first hurdle.

Others, though, are deemed to pass with flying colours because of how they’ve always Talked the Talk and Walked the Walk in the past.

Ben and Jerry’s is one. So is Patagonia. And Nike is another – or is it?

I was particularly interested in Nike’s recent response after the horrific killing of George Floyd as I’d just completed Shoe Dog, the autobiography of Nike founder Phil Knight, as part of my Covid-19 reading surge.

Autobiography of Phil Knight
Shoe Dog

I’d picked up Shoe Dog largely because of the reviews – 99.9% of them saying that this was a helluva distance removed from the usual bloated ego-trip in print enjoyed by many retiring CEOs and Chairmen.

And it certainly was different – personal, compelling and modest. In fact, I found it so good that I’ve persuaded the entire family to put it on their reading lists – yes, even the dog’s.

Shoe Dog is actually more of a personal memoir than a meticulously documented record of Nike’s success. And because it’s about ‘Knight the man’ it captures the individual blood, sweat, tears and tenacity that it took to take Nike to the top after quite a sluggish and uncertain start.

Throughout the book, Knight comes across as quite shy and retiring – somewhat of an introvert really compared to the normal perception of a strident American CEO. It’s also evident that he was always a shrewd judge of the people he surrounded himself with, and a man who believed in always doing the right thing.

So, looking back over Nike’s approach to their marketing, and especially their stance on social issues in recent times, it comes as no surprise that the personal legacy of Knight and the early Nike ethos that he fostered still seems to shine on in their marketing output.

Just Do It, of course, is held by many to be the Daddy of all brand slogans. And, consistently, Nike's ads have always seemed to effortlessly capture the current zeitgeist – from the iconic Michael Jordan imagery through the glorious fun of the ‘Bo Knows’ campaign, while never neglecting the Average Joe, the ‘little guy’ – like the very stout American kid doggedly running a long country road under a headline of ‘find your greatness’.

To borrow Apple’s tagline for a moment, Nike always seemed to want to ‘Think Different’ when it came to their marketing. For example, the brand stood by Tiger Woods when he was accused of infidelity while other brands were quick to drop the troubled golfer. They also once used big, bad basketball player Charles Barkley in a campaign headed 'How Not to be a Role Model'.

However, it was Nike’s recent support for American Football player Colin Kaepernick that raised the marketing game for every global brand.

Take a knee

Kaepernick, taking a stand against racial injustice in the States, famously introduced the ‘take a knee’ protest during the pre-game playing of the American national anthem. In many regards, the action was truly incendiary – like lighting a fuse in what was already a febrile atmosphere. Kaepernick was sacked by his team over his actions however and couldn’t get another franchise to employ him.

Nike then took up the cause, using Kaepernick in a powerful campaign under the headline:

Believe in something. Even if it means losing everything.

It was Nike’s bravest marketing move. Many said it was utterly reckless as there was obviously a danger of losing a massive chunk of market share. But guess what happened when the campaign aired: sales surged by over 30%.

The famous Nike Colin Kaepernick ad
Nike Colin Kaepernick ad

Looking back at that Kaepernick ad, Fast Company wrote:

“It was divisive because it jumped on America’s biggest fault lines—race, patriotism, sports, and business. But according to Nike founder Phil Knight, that was kind of the point. ‘It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it. And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.’”

All hail Nike, then.

Since that time, though, Nike has been criticised by some for not making more of an obvious long-term commitment to the cause of racial injustice at a time when the Kaepernick issue briefly began to fall away from the immediate spotlight. And they were rebuked too for not really using Kaepernick to any great extent again.

More tellingly perhaps, they were panned for not supporting other athletes on their roster who faced a range of more mundane challenges away from the racial injustice limelight.

But the brand was again roundly lauded in recent weeks for its response to the George Floyd killing when it produced a commercial that inverted its famous tagline:

“For once, don’t do it.
Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism.”

To be honest, I was a little disappointed in the ad. Nike had raised expectations exponentially with the quality and the power of the Kaepernick ad of almost two years ago. This time around, their output was, let’s say, quietly powerful – it had a neat but maybe expected twist in the copywriting, it had arch-rival Adidas sharing its sentiment but, for me at least, it wasn’t the glorious, rousing clarion call I thought that the moment – this tipping-point moment – deserved.

Nike copywriting ad for new marketing campaign
Nike invert their tagline

But, as I say, maybe that was just me. Maybe I felt that, to use Knight’s own thinking, it should have maybe offended people, maybe raised more hackles or somehow packed a bigger punch.

It all goes to show though that brands will probably never get it 100% right when it comes to judging the moment – from what to say, to how to say it.

Keep your head down?

The easy way out is to adopt a saying we know well in this country: “whatever you say, say nothing.” Don’t rock the boat, don’t raise your head above the parapet, keep your nose to the grindstone and just get on with things – business as usual, as it were.

But for the world’s giant brands, that is an option that’s quickly disappearing. The luxury of silence has gone. And largely it’s of their own making. After all, so much has been made in recent years of the power of ‘the brand’, including all the hype around how young people trust their favourite brand more than they trust the news, the government, their parents or their educators.

However, if ‘the brand’ wants to live up to this omnipotence, it better think of something meaningful to say. And it better take a new broom out to sweep away any of those creepy old skeletons still remaining buried in the back of their cupboards.

Business and politics have never been the best or easiest of bedfellows in the past. But in a world that is increasing ‘woke’ (dreadful word, I know) global brands will increasingly have to put up or shut up.

Even then, just like Nike, they’ll never get it completely right.

Let’s just hope that the next time this discussion comes to the fore it’s not after the TV-aired killing of another innocent man.