Brands Care What You Think — Just Ask Under Armour
Vote with your clicks, with your sponsorship, with your bookstore dollars. Vote with your conversations, with your letters to the editor, by changing the channel. -Seth Godin
For the last few years I’ve been a huge fan of the Under Armour brand. There was something about their marketing, their spokespeople, their attitude, and the apparel itself that spoke to me.
I read news stories about how Stephen Curry, one of the NBA’s biggest stars and the face of the Under Armour brand, had been half-heartedly pitched by Nike — they mispronounced his name, which sounds like “Steph-in,” not “Steph-on” — before choosing Under Armour as his endorsement partner. And I ate it up.
I even read stories about how the company’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, started the company by selling sweat-wicking athletic t-shirts out of the trunk of his car. A true boot-strapper, an American success story, taking it to Nike. What was not to like?
I bought so much Under Armour gear you would have thought I owned stock in the company (which I do).
Fast forward a few years to last week, when a story broke about the CEO, Kevin Plank, and his comments as a new member of President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. Plank told CNBC: “To have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country.”
That was, apparently, a mistake.
Plank has since faced backlash from Curry* not to mention two other big names under the Under Armour flag: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Misty Copeland. Under Armour eventually released a statement clarifying Plank’s and the company’s position, but the damage had been done.
*Curry said he agreed with Plank’s comments, if you take “asset” and “remove the -et.”
I started writing this piece a few times, including the day after Pennsylvania-based construction supplies retailer 84 Lumber aired a controversial, seemingly pro-immigration ad during the Super Bowl. Its CEO, Maggie Hardy Magerko, a Trump supporter, then came out and said the commercial wasn’t necessarily promulgating a pro-immigration message, so much as a vaguer, “that through struggles we will do anything we possibly can to make [the world] a better place for our children” message. In other words, 84 Lumber paid at least $10 million for a Super Bowl ad, the result of which is a lack of understanding of what it meant.
I could have written this piece even earlier, following the #DeleteUber movement in late January, when the on-demand taxi app caught flack by undermining a cab driver strike at JFK Airport in New York, in response to President Trump’s short-lived executive order on immigration (a.k.a the “Muslim ban”). Consumers were outraged that while cab drivers staged a work stoppage to draw attention to the ban, Uber was still sending its fleet to the airport — and charging higher rates, a.k.a. “surge pricing” — during the ban to capitalize on the lack of competition due to the strike. In response, hundreds of thousands of Uber’s (ex-)customers deleted the app from their phones.
When I heard about #DeleteUber, I rolled my eyes as I often do when I catch wind of this sort of slacktivism. Will it really make a difference?
Uber isn’t a publicly traded company, so we don’t know whether the company’s value took a hit (more on that later), but #DeleteUber certainly had a ripple effect:
- Uber’s biggest competitor, Lyft, smelled blood in the water and pledged to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years. (The ACLU was in the news at that same time for its lawyers storming American airports to offer pro bono council to Muslims affected by the ban.)
- Uber set aside $3 million for a legal-defense fund to support drivers.
- Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, facing consumer and employee pressure, stepped down from President Trump’s economic advisory council.
So, did some silly slacktivism campaign actually move the needle in any significant way? Hell yes.
My friend Elliot has taken to calling this “commercial activism,” a.k.a. voting with your wallet. Perhaps the most prominent recent example is Nordstrom, which announced it would stop selling Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. (President Trump famously replied to this news via Twitter.)
Nordstrom said sales of the eponymous brand have plummeted over its past fiscal year, and that this was purely a business decision. If that’s true, and people are exercising commercial activism in response to a president whose beliefs and policies oppose their own, then we’re seeing something special here. And we should expect a lot more of it moving forward, regardless of who (or even which party) is in the White House.
Brands like Patagonia pride themselves on doing the right thing, particularly from an environmental perspective, by encouraging people to “buy less” of their clothing rather than wastefully replacing their coats after a few years when all then need are a few minor repairs. (I know this to be true from personal experience: I once brought in an old Patagonia coat to one of their retail locations to be repaired; instead, they offered to take my old coat and let me select a new one right off the rack.)
While it’s a unique and interesting time from a business perspective to think about how brands might align themselves politically to put themselves in the best possible positions financially, for me it raises lots of questions.
For example, would (or should) a left- or right-leaning CEO or brand intentionally manipulate its marketing messaging against its own core beliefs if they thought it would help them sell more widgets? If they did, is that unethical?
And circling back to my earlier example, should Kevin Plank’s (the Under Armour CEO) comments dictate whether I continue to buy Under Armour’s products if I don’t agree with Plank’s political views? What if Plank supports Trump, but his employees — including the spokespeople who came out against him — mostly don’t? Should I simply ignore the CEO’s comments, because by boycotting him I’m affecting his employees, who had nothing to do with those comments?
I’m not sure how I feel about Under Armour at the moment. As The Rock said in speaking out against Plank, “a good company is not solely defined by its CEO.” But do I want to put money in Kevin Plank’s pockets, knowing that he may use a tiny fraction of it to support a political candidate I don’t like? And if I decide to buy Nike, or Adidas instead, must I research those companies’ executives’ campaign contribution history? Or do I just stick my head in the sand and simply buy whichever products I like best, regardless of my (or the company’s) political leanings?
Regardless of how (or whether) I’ll personally take action moving forward, my takeaway from the last few weeks is this: brands absolutely care what consumers think of them, perhaps more now than at any point in history. Companies exist to make money, and if consumers decide — for whatever reason, political or otherwise — to stop giving them money, they will notice and they will react.
As the Seth Godin quote at the top of this post suggests, we as Americans don’t just vote in November. We vote with our money — and our social media, and our Google search history, and what we watch on TV — all day, every day. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make my votes count.