Just DON’T It: Brands Fight Culture Wars at their Peril

Should brands get involved in culture wars?

E.g. some thought that Nike was very shrewd in hiring Colin Kaepernick as a brand ambassador.  He’s polarizing, but the bold move seemed to sync with their brand.  For the uninitiated, Kaepernick is the football player who got lots of kudos and crap for sitting during the national anthem at games and inspiring others to do the same.  By picking Kaepernick, Nike was standing up for rights and championing athletic prowess – or cynically playing to their base.  Either way, they placed their bet.

Some say that brands should express human, relatable qualities.  But people are often careful about sharing provocative views in public or at family gatherings or at work.

This was lost on Nike.  Sure enough, their Kaepernick gambit exploded like July 4th fireworks when Nike pulled new sneakers that had the Betsy Ross flag from production.  They did this at Colin’s urging, according to this NY Times piece, because the flag can be a symbol of oppression and racism.  Now, everyone is mad at Nike, and clearly, they are taking a business hit and PR lumps (it remains to be seen, what if any long term impact there will be on the brand and sales).

I know, it is easy to play armchair quarterback.  Hindsight is 2020. Etc. And there were lots of moving parts to the mess.  Should Nike have hired Kaepernick in the first place? Having done that, should they have heeded his advice on marketing strategy (if that actually happened)?

The alternative is for brands to get bland – so neutral and inoffensive that they don’t appeal to anyone.

We live in polarized times.  We have become numb to provocation.  But in a sick way, we love to have our buttons pushed. So it is tempting for a Nike or any company to take their culture war shots.

But the latest episode shows the risks.  Nike and other companies should think twice before doing this – that is my opinion.

What do you think? I asked some friends and co-workers – see their answers below, and feel free to chime in with your comments.  And happy July 4th, Flack’s Revenge readers!

Emily said: “I think it is fair for brands to take sides in culture wars, especially if a brand ambassador is being called out by the public as a bad role model. If a brand isn’t being properly represented or the brand ambassador does not uphold the company’s values, I think it is the company’s right to pull lines and end sponsorships as needed.”

George said: “They missed the elephant in the room – the controversy over the past few years about the Confederate flag and statues should have put Nike on the alert about flag symbolism.”

Mark said: “It depends on the company’s preferred image and appetite for controversy. It can always be interpreted as ‘jumping on a bandwagon’ and can definitely backfire in terms of sales, but it’s always an attention-getter!  I’m all for companies getting involved in culture wars.  It helps me know which brands to avoid!  I think pulling the shoes was a mistake though.  Their stock has taken a hit, and that’s a case where they should have let the marketplace decide whether or not they wanted flags on their feet.”

Jordan said: “Brands are being forced to participate in cultural wars usually erring on the conservative side. If anything becomes offensive to anyone these days, brands are so wary of negative repercussions that they almost don’t have a choice but to pull a product, or an ad, or an individual.  Is that taking a side? In a sense it is. Making a choice is taking a side.  Even doing nothing could be, although that would passive.  However, nowadays doing nothing can be ground for an attack.   A deeper question could be whether brands are acting out of what they believe to be a correct choice ethically. Clearly most brands these days believe that it’s in their business interests to take what is generally reverse-action (pulling back on something or someone) but at some point, there will be a backlash against that as well.  The flag and Nike might be a good example, we’ll see. “

Brian said: ” I think it’s the most socially unaware/tone deaf branding decision ever – you can go with Kaepernick, but then you need to stay from the flag – especially one from an era that obviously had slavery. Don’t hedge your bets.”

Adam said: “Who the fxxk wants sneakers with a Betsy Ross flag anyway.”

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1 Response to Just DON’T It: Brands Fight Culture Wars at their Peril

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