Why Nike’s Move to Play the Fence Works to Their Benefit

How to do business in this politically charged environment

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Jan 14 · 6 min read
Photo credit: Omar Prestwich/Unsplash

Consumer behavior has gone through a complete metamorphosis, especially in the 2000s. Once upon a time, marketers felt like their boss was the CEO of the company or brand that hired them. Nowadays customers’ opinions can outrank even the founders of companies.

Some organizations shrug their shoulders and choose to stand on their own — whether their opinions are popular or not. Others believe staying in the loop is the only way to stay profitable. Meanwhile, marketing execs are either trying to maintain a company’s good name or trying to keep the company out of trouble.

Listen Up! Customers Have Something to Say

Do you want a celebrity face attached to your product? You better check out what the social media trending topics have to say about this person. Are you interested in donating a portion of your proceeds to a particular cause? It’s a good idea to see what reputable surveys and discussion boards have to say about that, too.

  • Sixty-six percent of respondents in a 2015 Nielsen survey said they were willing to pay more for products and services that come from companies who are committed to positive social and environmental impact — higher stats than 2014 (55 percent) and 2013 (50 percent).
  • Approximately nine out of 10 millennials were willing to switch brands to one that is associated with a cause, according to a 2015 Cone Communications Millennial CSR Study.
  • People Magazine even created a top 28 list for beauty brands that hope to appeal to customers’ humanitarian habits. These beauty brands donate funds for everything from dog adoption to child emergencies to breast cancer and voting.

On the surface, brands helping consumers become the activists that they want to be makes sense. It’s a win-win for the customer and the company. But what happens when a brand stands up for a cause or stands next to a public figure that a consumer does not support?

When Entertainment, Politics, and Business Collide

When companies attach themselves to a public figure, they cross their fingers and hope that their brands don’t somehow get ruined if the celeb decides to go off the rails. With that said, some consumers are pretty good at separating “the art” from the politics. Others simply refuse to separate the two. Then there’s a third group that falls more into a gray area.

For example, actor/director Kelsey Grammer is open about being a Trump supporter. But there’s no denying his quiet production credit for the eight-year, legendary African-American sitcom “Girlfriends.”

Kanye West considers the current president a “father figure,” but even former fans who are against his politics still gave the rapper’s ninth album “Jesus Is King” a shot. It soared to the top of the Billboard charts, with 197 million streams and 109,000 copies sold as a full album during its opening week — much to the relief of Def Jam Recordings and Universal Music Group.

Comedic actor Ashton Kutcher endorsed former, two-time presidential candidate Hillary Clinton but still starred in the Netflix series “The Ranch.” And Sam Elliott, who also stars in “The Ranch” as a conservative-leaning father, hasn’t hidden his anti-Trump views either. Meanwhile, Netflix is also giving viewers the option to skip Trump jokes altogether in comedian Seth Meyers’ latest comedy special.

On the opposite side, ABC stopped ignoring Roseanne Barr’s Twitter rants on politics and race, and removed her from the reboot of her own ’80s sitcom. Season two of the show became “The Conners,” which still kept its conservative-leaning theme but made Dan Conner a widower. Meanwhile, John Goodman and the rest of the cast saved the show — even after John Goodman suggested Trump supporters build their own dome away from everybody else.

When Brands Risk It All on Their Personal Views

Even restaurants and retail stores are being examined for their political and social views. Chick-fil-A may be one of the most popularly known controversial companies for anti-LGBTQIA+ views. But this Philly Mag laundry list of companies is letting consumers know they should be challenging anti-inclusion views from Armani, Bed Bath & Beyond, H&M, Kate Spade, Outback Steakhouse and 200+ more. Even consumers just trying to promote their local meet-and-greets may be surprised that EventBrite made the list, too. But this same list can be used as a go-to for conservative-leaning consumers who want to support companies in alignment with their views.

When companies take a firm stance or donate to any cause, they have to be ready for today’s consumers to either completely love the idea or go as far as boycotting it just for making one “wrong” move. So that leaves marketers wondering whether companies should even risk working with someone who could hurt their brands. Or should they just play it safe?

Nike, on the other hand, has a business plan that appears to be different than other companies. They won’t choose sides; they’re trying to appease everybody.

What Nike Is Doing Differently

Nike didn’t become a 55-year-old brand without taking a few risks. And sometimes their business decisions can either gain them a slew of new customers or make people wonder if they should rid their closets of all things Nike.

  • Comedian Kevin Hart got into trouble for decade-old jokes about the LGBTQIA+ community. That didn’t make Nike shut down the Hart footwear, which is sold out on the website. And the New Year’s resolutions are coming in strong, with people still tweeting #MoveWithHart and using the Nike + Run Club mobile app.
  • Meanwhile, during the same year that Kevin Hart dealt with the Oscars controversy, Nike also released the 2019 BETRUE collection. The six-color flag made the global symbol quite clear that the shoes and shirts were standing up for the LGBTQIA+ community.
  • Some NFL players despised Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, for taking a knee in support of racial inequality and police brutality. Jerseys were burned. Words were exchanged. Veterans bickered among each other. And Kaerpenick hasn’t been in the NFL ever since. Then Nike signed him for the 2018 “Just Do It” campaign. For Kaepernick fans, this past Christmas may have been a race to purchase the “True to 7” shoe before it sold out — the same day it was released.
  • But anti-Kaepernick consumers may have shrugged their shoulders. They already had the chance to purchase the 2019 “Betsy Ross” flag shoe. Although Nike discontinued the shoe due to its flag design — 13 colonies linked to slavery days — that didn’t stop sales for the $140 shoe from skyrocketing up to $2,500 on the clothing site StockX.
  • And while hundreds of women recently marched to protest the company’s treatment of women, Nike fans can’t deny the 2019 “Dream Crazier” ad narrated by tennis legend Serena Williams with other well-known women gymnasts such as Simone Biles and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. That’s in addition to the “Standing Up for Equality” campaign.

What Nike is doing may leave some consumers going, “Whose side are you on?”

But solely from a business and marketing perspective, Nike may be onto something. Instead of excluding certain celebrities, the company is giving them an outlet for their consumer base to invest in. Nike seems to be dodging customers trying to pick the company apart and assume it stands for [insert cause here]. If consumers like this cause, the marketing team can organize promotions to celebrate that celebrity and product. If consumers like this other cause, there’s a product campaign for them, too. And capitalism wins either way because Nike still gets paid.

Better Marketing

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Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

15-year vegetarian journalist/editor; Wag! dog walker; Rover dog sitter; Unity Toastmasters member and 4x officer; Visit Shamontiel.com

Better Marketing

Advice & case studies

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