Joe Chetcuti – Director of Front – asks: What do brands really mean now?
In 2016, a US National Football League quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, decided to sit during the national anthem at a televised game as a protest against police brutality. He then sat or kneeled at every subsequent game too. He was hailed a hero in some quarters and a villain in others (including by Trump); he didn’t get a contract to play for any team in 2017 and took the NFL to court accusing them of colluding to keep him out of the league. But in 2018 Nike used him as the face of its campaign.
Now the dust has settled it made me think that this may be a seminal moment in branding. Why?
Well, Nike is the official kit sponsor for the NFL in a billion-dollar eight-year deal. This is big business, the type of deal that becomes the cornerstone of a brand’s whole comms activity. So why on earth would they try and scupper it by supporting and individual who is taking your business partner to court? Especially as most brands would run a mile from associating themselves with such an overtly political campaign. Saving the whale and fluffy kittens- you betcha; but white cops shooting black men on the streets of the US – now that’s much more of a complex and charged issue for a corporation to become involved in.
Supporting such an emotive, divisive, though perfectly valid, campaign would - on the face of it - be brand reputation suicide and it would be seemingly impossible to manage in a maelstrom of conflicting opinions and positions. But Nike just did it. On face value, that is strange behaviour from a massive corporation with an equally massive brand reputation to maintain, but in reality, was it?
Initially Nike suffered a drop in its shareprice but that - and its overall appeal – soon rallied and it became the number one clothing brand for 13 and 39 year olds last year. Successfully appealing to that particular age bracket is no mean feat. According to youth research firm YPulse that was nothing to do with the product, its quality, service or price but was in fact due to the authenticity of the brand’s image. Those researched felt that Nike ‘reflected diversity’ and “supported causes they cared about’.
This begs a number of questions. What about consistency of service, quality, price or a positive and engaging brand image? They’re clearly not as important to customers as traditional brand management would have you think. And you know what … we’ve always known this.
Think about it. How many emotive campaign ideas have been bludgeoned into a ‘one size fits all box’ to suit category norms? I think we’ve all been guilty of letting that happen at some point.
Brands have traditionally been emotionally anonymous, only going as far as they feel won’t cause to much discord. But Nike have changed the game and thrown out the rule book. Rather than standing for something that came from within the brand, they stood for something that came from its customers.
This is without doubt a difficult area for traditional brand management to navigate. It is important to care about the curation of a brand’s symbol, logo, colours, language and their consistent implementation across all mediums. Yet this becomes entirely irrelevant if your competitors are standing up for equal rights and improved diversity across the world.
This will be the future battleground for many, if not all, brands. The challenge for agencies is to recognise this and to develop creative solutions and processes that genuinely reflect the new reality.