Nike and USWNT tap into the goodwill bank

A topsy-turvy week for two iconic brands ended with both of them riding on the back of a national celebration.

USWNT captain Megan Rapinoe takes the plaudits at NYC ticker-tape parade (Getty Images).
USWNT captain Megan Rapinoe takes the plaudits at NYC ticker-tape parade (Getty Images).

The U.S. Women’s National Team had just brought home the soccer world cup for the second time in a row and added a fourth star to their jerseys.

At the end of the final, the crowd was chanting "equal pay" to the tune of the usual American sporting fan refrain "U.S.A."

Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and co. were about to embark on an epic celebration that took them on an alcohol-fueled journey from Lyon, France to a ticker-tape welcome in New York City and endless memes on social media.

Cut to the first ad break after the end of the game that the USWNT won comfortably 2-0 against their Netherlands opponents. This is prime Nike territory and the iconic and often controversial brand didn’t disappoint.

A one-minute spot called "Never Stop Winning" showed the USWNT getting ready for the big game, accompanied by a powerful and uplifting voiceover that ends with the message, "This team wins. Everyone wins."

It tapped into the zeitgeist of a defining moment of national celebration that really felt like molds were being broken and taboos demolished. Thousands of young women in the U.S. and around the world were empowered by the team. Thousands of young men in the U.S. were wearing the USWNT replica jersey.

The victorious players enjoyed many media appearances once they got back home and engaged everyone with their joi de vivre, incredible team spirit and determination to champion the cause of women in sport and elsewhere and be excellent role models for the next generation.  

Heck, it even made me forgive Alex Morgan for her cheeky tea-drinking celebration after she scored the winning goal in the U.S.'s tense semi-final match against the Lionesses of my home country, England.

Morgan had further cause for celebration at the ESPYS in LA later on Wednesday when she received the award for Best Female Athlete, commenting that it was the "second-best trophy we received this week." The USWNT also won the award for Best Team.

Nike tweeted out the appropriately titled "Never Stop Winning" one-minute ad, which has been viewed 20 million times, liked over 280,000 times, and retweeted 98,000 times. It also tweeted out the speech featured in the ad, line by line.

According to social media analytics firm Talkwalker, Nike was the most-mentioned brand around the women’s soccer world cup by a factor of three to one over the next-most-mentioned.

It was a positive culmination to a difficult July 4 week for Nike, which had drawn much opprobrium before the holiday when it apparently bowed to pressure from its Dream Crazy marketing representative Colin Kaepernick and withdrew shoes from the market branded with the Betsy Ross flag.

The red, white and blue-themed sneakers were released to coincide with the July 4 holiday and tap into patriotic fervor around independence celebrations. But some people regard the Betsy Ross version of the flag that featured thirteen stars in a circle on the heel of the shoes to be racist and offensive, as a symbol of slavery and nationalism.

The usual uproar erupted on social media channels, with Arizona governor Doug Ducey pronouncing he would withdraw tax and other incentives the state had offered the sportswear manufacturer to build a facility in the state.

"Arizona’s economy is doing just fine without Nike," he added melodramatically. While some might consider his stance admirably principled, others questioned the long-term wisdom of turning away jobs from your state in this day and age. And the impact of Ducey’s stand was diluted when the governor was pictured on Sunday at a holiday barbeque wearing a pair of Nike shoes.

Anyway, he has now obviously thought better of his initial bravado, gone full circle, and in a tweet Thursday welcomed Nike’s $184 million investment in the state and creation of 500 jobs.

If it wasn’t already, it is certainly true now that what Nike does is always going to be a lightning rod for popular culture and social attitudes - and that’s a powerful position for a brand to find itself in.

It may not always get every decision correct, though in general it reads its core audience well and ultimately comes out ahead of the game even if there is some short-term pain involved first.

But the prevailing takeaway from this incident was pointed out by Carol Cone on The PR Week podcast this week. Cone, who is regarded as one of the instigators of cause marketing and who ironically established her purpose chops via high-profile work on another shoe company, Rockport, believes brands have to be bold to be authentic in their quest to demonstrate purpose.

Starbucks has had knockbacks through its Race Together initiative and a controversy last year around black people being asked to leave the coffee giant’s premises.

But brands such as Starbucks and Nike have a lot of credit in what Cone dubs the "goodwill bank" that allows them to get the benefit of the doubt and move forward from temporary missteps.

The USWNT has adopted a bold approach to its public image and reputation, with team captain Rapinoe declining to sing the national anthem prior to games and saying she would not go to the White House if the U.S. soccer team won the World Cup.

She followed that up with a passionate speech at the parade in NYC and media appearances in which she said President Trump’s message was "excluding people" and that "you need to do better for everyone," including women and members of the LGBTQ community.

Like Nike and Starbucks, the USWNT has plenty of credit in the goodwill bank at the moment. But, ultimately, the boldness this empowers has to be matched by the quality of the product, whether that is a pair of sneakers, a cup of coffee or a performance on the soccer field.

The whole stance would have fallen a little flat if Rapinoe and her team had failed to bring home the cup. Sometimes winning is decided by very fine margins.

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