Why other brands will follow Nike into social justice

But like ads showing Michael Jordan dunking, it's not as easy as it looks.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

Nike’s high-profile ad starring Colin Kaepernick is bound to inspire other brands to "just do it" and get behind social justice issues, say experts. However, they warn that not every company can "pull a Nike."

What sets Nike apart is the sheer ubiquity of its brand, notes Cone EVP Alison DaSilva. Over the past two years, other brands have taken progressive stances, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods stopping the sale of assault-style firearms following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Levi Strauss & Co. pledging more than $1 million to stop gun violence.

"We have seen a lot of companies be bold over the last couple of years," says DaSilva. "What makes Nike different and particularly eye-opening is the fact that it is one of the most well-recognized and iconic brands in the world."

Nonetheless, experts believe other brands are about to follow Nike’s lead. Consumers’ attitudes about campaigns with political overtones from brands are changing, too. This year’s WE Communications Brands in Motion study found that three-quarters of consumers (74%) around the globe expect brands to take a stand on important issues, up 4% from last year.

"Nike’s bravery will absolutely make many other brands think, consider, and take action," adds Melissa Waggener Zorkin, CEO of WE Communications.

Brands also have more data to consider when deciding whether to take a political stand. "There has been a lot of talk in the last 18 months about politics becoming similar to sports teams, where people dig into their corner and support their side no matter what," says William McCormick, founder of Pure Knot. "This has meant that people’s political selections are no longer hidden and are blasted across social media [as are] choices we make as customers."

With that in mind, he predicts there will be a spike in brands producing more aggressive campaigns based on social, cultural, and political issues. Marketers may also be encouraged by the fact that Nike has not suffered much brand damage from the campaign, notes Global Strategy Group partner Julie Hootkin.

Immediately after Nike teased the ad, and its new narrator-slash-star, some angry customers threatened to boycott the sportswear brand. Some even burned their sneakers on YouTube. However, experts suspect that many of those who are most upset were not core Nike customers in the first place. "People want to understand if these #BoycottNike conversations are taking place among a subset of Americans who perhaps weren’t core Nike consumers anyway," says Hootkin.

Before Kaepernick was revealed as the face of Nike’s campaign, only 2% of Americans said they had heard something negative about Nike. Afterwards, that number jumped to 33%, according to Morning Consult data from last week.

"The impact that dip [in favorability] had among their core consumers was marginal compared to the impact overall," explains Hootkin.

Since the campaign launch, Nike has suffered no negative sales repercussions, according to data from Edison Trends, and after the initial hype died down, Nike’s sales have returned to pre-Kaepernick levels and its share price hit an all-time high on Thursday.

"This is natural after an initial bump of hype," adds McCormick. "The real answer will come in six to 12 months as we see the long-term impact of taking such a bold move on a divisive topic."

Although Nike has weathered boycott threats and upset customers, other brands should be wary of blindly following the company’s lead. Taking on a social issue does not equal instant success for a campaign, as seen by Pepsi’s much-mocked Kendall Jenner ad or a Dove ad from last year that showcased new shapes of its shampoo bottles to reflect body types.

Even though there was outrage on social media over the Pepsi and Dove ads, two separate studies from Morning Consult found that other consumers weren’t as hostile. The research company found that 41% of people came away with a more favorable view of Dove after seeing the campaign and 71% said they were likely to purchase Dove products, up three points from before the push. For Pepsi, 40% saw it in a more positive light after watching the Jenner spot.

"Ads that get attention are always more valuable than ads that don’t, even if there are massive protests," says Eric Yaverbaum, president of Ericho Communications, arguing it is worth it for brands to plug themselves in to big conversations happening in the country.

Every step Nike took with its Kaepernick ad was a calculated move, experts say. The spot also wasn’t completely out of left field: the brand has a rich history of positioning itself as a progressive company. In the 1990s, Nike ran a female empowerment ad campaign, If You Let Me Play, and last year the brand introduced a Nike hijab for observant Muslim women athletes.

"This was another instance of Nike stepping out in a way that made sense for them and is consistent with the kind of engagement and activism that Nike has pursued," says Hootkin.

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