Brands: Doing nothing is no longer an option

Taking a stand is fraught with risk and potential downsides, but iconic brands such as Nike and Levi's are embracing danger and drawing a line in the sand on issues as various as immigration, race relations, gun violence, and trade tariffs.

Colin Kaepernick is the face of Nike's 30th anniversary Just Do It push (Pic: @Nike Twitter)
Colin Kaepernick is the face of Nike's 30th anniversary Just Do It push (Pic: @Nike Twitter)

Nike’s 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign launch this week underlines the mantra that brands and corporations are expected to take a stand on issues and walk the walk as responsible members of society.

The campaign featuring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick includes the caption, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

Kaepernick famously took a knee during the pregame national anthem in 2016 to raise awareness of police brutality against African-Americans. He has not been signed by a team since the end of that season and has sued the league’s owners, accusing them of colluding to keep him unsigned.

Nike’s activation of Just Do It around Labor Day, the end of summer, and the first game of the new football season were all designed to garner the maximum attention possible. The iconic sneaker maker’s executives will have calculated the risks and benefits and were no doubt well-prepared for the inevitable backlash and blowback from such a campaign.

It shows brands are no longer just flying under the radar and operating out of sight of their stakeholders. They are being forced into dialogue on issues whether they like it or not - consequently many of them are taking a proactive stance and getting ahead of the narrative.

Nowhere has that been better illustrated than this week when not just Nike but also Levi’s stepped up to the plate on hot button issues that resonate with their core target audiences but polarize opinion across the country.

Havas’ long-running Meaningful Brands survey shows brands forging meaningful connections with customers have outperformed the stock market by 206% in the past decade. And advocacy is one of the prime KPIs in measuring those connections.

Operating in this manner requires extreme bravery and boldness that will have been sorely tested when #BoycottNike hashtags sprouted on social media, people started burning their sneakers, President Trump weighed in on Twitter, and Nike’s share price plummeted.

The stock dropped almost 4% in the day following the campaign launch, from 82.18 a share to 79.01, but has gradually crept back up during the week and at the time of writing is trading at 81.07, down 1.6%. I’m not a stock market expert, but I fully expect it to regain all its losses soon.

The issue of players taking a knee eventually became a bit of a damp squib as the opening game of the 2018-19 season took place amid lightening and rain and there was more attention on the unveiling of the Super Bowl banner than player protests.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that teams didn't enter the field of play until after the national anthem until 2009, when the Department of Defense paid the NFL to start Tribute to Service and other military recruitment schemes that are now familiar to anyone who watches football.

Separately, Levi Strauss also chose the Labor Day period to take a stand on an issue, unveiling an initiative to end gun violence led by president and CEO Chip Bergh.

He wrote in an op-ed for Fortune: "As business leaders with power in the public and political arenas, we simply cannot stand by silently when it comes to the issues that threaten the very fabric of the communities where we live and work. While taking a stand can be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option."

Some might legitimately ask what the gun issue has to do with a jeans company. The practical answer is that, in 2016, Levi’s retail employees expressed concern over customers carrying guns in its stores, including one consumer who accidentally shot and injured himself while trying on a pair of jeans. Bergh asked gun owners not to bring firearms into Levi’s stores.

The company has subsequently been inspired by the young people speaking up on the gun violence epidemic. It is doubling down on the issue through various initiatives, including launching The Safer Tomorrow Fund for nonprofits and youth activists, partnering with Everytown Business Leaders for Gun Safety, and doubling employee donations and encouraging them to be more politically active.

Levi's has notably positioned its activity as being about ending gun violence rather than advocating against gun ownership per se, though inevitably some of the blowback on social media has ignored that distinction and the jeans company, like Nike, would have been well-prepared for that too.

In the current political environment, automakers are always going to be in the firing line on jobs and locating production facilities in the U.S., but again there's little point in them just sitting tight and hoping they don't become the subject of a presidential tweet.

Ford last week halted plans to sell its Chinese-made Focus Active vehicle in America because of higher U.S. tariffs. The looming tariff issue means the crossover vehicle’s costs in the U.S. would likely be much higher, so it came out and said it will now only be sold in Europe and China.

Whether it's lobbying behind the scenes in Washington or, increasingly, coming out publicly on tariffs and immigration, it's an example of carmakers also getting involved in debates around societal issues.

It’s tricky territory for all communicators and C-suites. They know brands should take a stand and they may want to see their organizations become more opinionated, but they’re well aware of the downsides too.

And there is some skepticism about brands positioning themselves as forces for good and getting in over their heads or coming over as preachy, patronizing, or sanctimonious.

But there is little upside in brands and companies operating completely below the radar. They figure that sometimes they need to make a stand, especially on issues that are completely relevant to their business operations, whether that is immigration, guns, race relations, or trade tariffs.

Bottom line: Taking a stand on issues must fit with your brand identity and credibility. What’s good for Nike won’t necessarily wash for Procter & Gamble. But brands can no longer stand idly by disengaged from the world around them.

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