Nike and the Arrogance of Moral Certainty

Image source: Sole Collector
Social impact is not a strategy; it’s a responsibility. It’s a moral imperative, not a marketing plan.

Should my words fail me, I want to first establish that I am against police brutality, racism, bigotry and intolerance in absolute and unconditional terms.

What follows is not a political statement on my behalf or on behalf of the American Marketing Association. Rather, I aim to point out the wrong-headedness of Nike’s marketing decision to feature Colin Kaepernick as its moral paragon in celebration of the 30th anniversary of its epic brand declaration, “Just Do It.”

I am not opposed to anyone’s right to expression whenever and wherever they choose. My question, or challenge, is what responsibility comes along with that right? Further, what judgement comes along with that right?

Critical social and societal issues such as police brutality and racism warrant the full attention of our citizenry until they are extinguished from the planet. Period. Are there any forums in which these serious issues are unwanted? Should a brand “on a mission” care?

For many brands today, the blurry line between purpose and profit presents a knotty management issue. Allow me to share my own perspective.

There are few more ardent fans of the Nike brand than I. I’ve spent countless hours deconstructing the magical elixir constituting the Nike brand. I could never get enough of it as a marketing professional or an avid runner, and it has served as a source of inspiration for my own career in marketing — earning me the nickname “flamethrower” in one industry publication.

Like Nike, I agree there are times when it is more important to be provocative than pleasant. However, from a marketing point of view, it is my counsel to brand owners that it is unnecessarily dangerous, commercially or morally, to drape a politically incendiary cape around your brand and delude yourself into thinking it makes you a superhero.

Declaring “you’re for me or against me” on an issue for which there are legitimate and differing perspectives is both ignorant and arrogant. “Just Do It” was once a universal appeal to the primordial human need to move. It was and, for the time being, is a big, simple and inclusive idea packed with layers and layers of psycho-strata. It was a declaration that no matter who you are, there’s a better you inside you if only you decide to “do it,” too.

It is articulated with utter economy: three small words strung together with tugboat pulling power. It is a karate-chop call to action and a symbol of pony express-like determination. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed those couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Just like the resolute U.S. Postal creed, Nike exhorts to us all that there are no excuses; not fear, not bad luck, not superstition, not the opponent, not the ref, not the weather or any other interference of any kind can defeat a rage and exhilaration to move. It is essentially “A to B;” it deserves an emphatic “dammit” as punctuation.

I will concede the Kaepernick move is provocative. But what it did was divide Nike’s near universal brand appeal into something smaller. Not just because of the obvious math, but because of the arrogance of it. This move took away a connection that millions want to make with a brand they once felt understood them. It turns out Nike no longer seeks to understand, it thinks it knows better.

“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority,” said journalist H.L. Mencken. “The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.’”

My thinking on this is not new. I wrote about this notion several months ago.

Not every brand can stand for political, social or environmental issues. A dedication to making the customer’s life easier need not be driven by some ennobling societal vision, just an honest passion to make life easier or better. J. Walker Smith makes a compelling case as to the important distinction between purpose and politics in the Marketing News June edition in an article titled, “Brands with Purpose. Not Politics.
Now, there are certainly times and circumstances when brand owners are obliged to disassociate and distance themselves from those who have hijacked their brand in the name of morally reprehensible intentions, such as were on display in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But I would generally advise against positioning a brand around issues where there are otherwise legitimate and divergent points of view. The opportunity to grow a brand is maximized when bringing many different-minded people together who can be satisfied by a powerful and unifying solution for something in their lives. Please don’t mistake my views to say a firm doesn’t need a moral center or duty to comport themselves according to universal values of decency. Social impact is not a strategy; it’s a responsibility. It’s a moral imperative, not a marketing plan. Solving a relevant problem or inventing a new source of enjoyment or comfort is purposeful; and yes, just being useful ought to be religion enough.

Nike is for the athlete. Athletes are not a monolithic group. They are as diverse in political and social issues as is the body politic. A disposition or way of thinking to prefer that politics are kept separate and discreet from sports or entertainment is not the moral equivalent of racism, so please don’t ascribe illicit or ulterior motives to my purpose in speaking marketing truth on this issue.

Ultimately, the free market will decide if our once coveted autumn Sunday and Monday night ritual now comes with a moral chalk talk.

Agree or disagree, but please don’t get personal. Civility is not a sign of weakness.