I’ve often wondered why companies hammer sharp social stakes into the ground. Ben and Jerry’s. Hobby Lobby. Chick-fil-a. Lately, Levi’s – my jeans brand – has advocated for gun restrictions. Gasp!
Ardently promoting a social agenda is antithetical to what I’ve learned about marketing. Don’t alienate people with disposable income or investment capital. Better yet, don’t alienate anyone! Just sell. As one sales rep told me, “if there was a society for people with six toes, I’d join it to mine for prospects.” A man after my own heart.
In over 40 years as a marketeer, I’ve yet to work with an organization that has purposefully promoted social values to its prospects and customers. It’s easy to understand the rationale for remaining scrupulously agnostic: when a customer intends to buy, make it easy for them. Don’t screw things up by injecting politics and personal morals into the mix. Buyers and sellers, let’s just coexist as one big, happy egalitarian value chain. Sunshine, puppy dogs, and daisies. Sometimes, when business is left alone, things do work out for the best for society. Sigh . . .
Back to reality. Social values do influence a vendor’s marketing actions, and when that happens, it can be alarming. Bakeries that turn away gay customers. Restaurants that refuse to serve unpopular political appointees. And Nike featuring Colin Kaepernick in its ads. These events shake our assumptions to the core. How does this happen? Enterprises that eschew revenue uber alle? Criminy! What’s next? Selling without trust? Maybe things are changing faster than ever.
For marketers, the main story isn’t whether Nike endorses Kaepernick’s free speech rights. This is about how to use risk as a competitive weapon. Take notes, because succeed or fail, we’re about to benefit from a powerful lesson. Although Kaepernick is a polarizing personality who doesn’t play for an NFL team, he’s among the most recognizable sports personalities on the planet. For marketers, that alone makes him tantalizing to incorporate into a campaign. Not surprisingly, Nike was not the only company to find Kaepernick attractive for its advertising. Earlier this year, Puma and Adidas dabbled with the idea. But Nike jumped on the opportunity. A deft move. Nike has never been a company that looks a gift horse in the mouth. And it showed up when Kaepernick became the centerpiece of a mounting protest that had both controversy and appeal.
Nike’s choice to use Kaepernick speaks volumes about their brand promise, the customers they want to reach, and their strategy for revenue growth. To use a trite sports metaphor, it’s called “skate to where the puck will be.”
And where the puck will be is spelled m-i-l-l-e-n-n-i-a-l. By 2019, Millennials, Americans between 22 and 37 years old, are projected to become the largest US demographic, surpassing my generation, baby boomers. And – fun fact – 44% of Millennials are non-white. Post-Millennial, the non-white ratio increases to 48% and post-post Millennial (kids who are currently under 10 years old), it’s 50%. You don’t have to be a math whiz to extrapolate the trendline. And you don’t need to be a social scientist to project which brand attributes future buyers will value. If I were in Nike’s executive suite, I’d bet on Kaepernick, too. And believe me, I’m no willy-nilly risk taker.
Millennials are “very different than earlier generations,” according to demographer William Frey, author of Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America. As sports columnist Sally Jenkins wrote in The Washington Post (Nike Knows What the Future Looks Like, September 5, 2018), “They are more prone to interracial marrying, friendlier to immigration and often want their consumption to have a social component. If Nike is willing to offend its graying buyers in order to court these multiple generations with a racial justice campaign, ‘it’s a good bet that a lot of younger people will be attracted and go along with that,’ Frey said.” Yepper. 56% of Millennials said they found the Kaepernick’s anthem-kneeling protest appropriate. Someone needs to figure out how to parlay that into revenue . . .
Nike is betting that younger, active buyers will also continue to buy lots of athletic shoes and athletic wear, and with Kaepernick tied to the brand, they have given them greater reason to identify with Nike. And of course, it doesn’t hurt that Nike’s NFL contract will propel that distinctive swoosh logo onto millions of viewing screens this fall. I picture commissioner Roger Goodell slamming his head against the wall as I type this. Woulda, coulda, shoulda . . . I think you did this to yourself, pal.
With Kaepernick, Nike has alienated older buyers and Republicans, who overwhelmingly find his anthem protests objectionable (only 10% of Republicans approved, according to a Wall Street Journal article, Nike Faces Kaepernick Backlash). No doubt many of them have already torched their shoes at the end of their driveways. But Nike has clearly set its sights on high-use consumers: Millennials who grind through athletic footwear like popcorn, by skateboarding, running marathons, or walking to an Uber pickup spot after the concert downtown. They’re less interested in appealing to my fellow boomers who spring for a shiny pair of white sneakers to wear on the cruise, or to walk the ultra-smooth sanitized floors at the mall. Those shoes will look pristine forever. Yawn.
Nike, which coined, Just do it, knows its customers desire more than shoes and apparel. They want inspiration, which is already embedded in the brand. And the company’s big hairy audacious bet is that a sizable chunk of the world’s population will align with Colin Kaepernick for his resolve to take an unpopular, but principled stance. That’s an American theme, shared globally. The bet carries risk, but it’s an intelligent choice. I predict that Nike will weather the backlash and reap financial rewards. Not every company has the backbone, brand equity and financial capacity to sustain the problems, and I have no doubt the depth of Nike’s risk capacity played a role in the company’s decision concerning Kaepernick. Assuming Nike wins, their campaign will inform marketers that risk isn’t something to tremble about. When used strategically with proper intelligence, it can become a powerful competitive weapon.