Here’s what marketers can take away from Nike’s fearless approach to taking a stance on controversial social issues. 

Few viewers can forget the image of Williams pleading with court referees, urging them to consider what she perceived as an inherently unfair response to the reprimands she received by Ramos. “Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me? That is not right,” she said. 

The explosive match sparked a broader media debate about the gendered social stereotypes that dominate the sporting world and the disparities between the treatment of men and women in sports — particularly when it comes to the expression of emotion. When NBA favorite Stephen Curry notoriously threw his mouthpiece in frustration during the 2017 Finals, the referees were pinned for making “ridiculous” calls. In contrast, when Serena Williams demanded fair treatment by officials in the U.S. Open, she was demonized for having a “meltdown.”

For brands sitting on the sidelines, the question arises: Should we or should we not take a stance on social and political issues dominating public discourse? Whether motivated by a purely philanthropic commitment to social good, an incentive to please stakeholders, or the hopes of winning the hearts — and pocketbooks — of their target audiences, many brands answer the question affirmatively. 

Among the most high-profile is Nike, who made waves in the same month as Williams’ U.S. Open with a striking Colin Kaepernick ad campaign, positioning themselves definitively in solidarity with NFL players protesting police violence against Black Americans. While Nike’s Kaepernick ad was met with aggressive backlash — with many retailers outright refusing to sell Nike products in its stores — the brand has flourished. In fact, the athletic outfitter tallied a 5% increase in stock prices and reaped a $6 billion increase in overall value within a month of the ad’s release.

Not to mention the sneaker giant’s “Dream Crazier” ad campaign unveiled during the 2019 Academy Awards. 

Narrated by Serena Williams herself, the ad is both a direct response to the controversy surrounding the September debacle with match officials and a commentary on the gendered stereotypes that pervade sports and hamper female athletes from being able to express passion, anger, ambition, or heartbreak without facing criticism. 

Assessing Risk and Reward for Taking a Stance

Research is generally on the side of brands who take a stance. In fact, according to recent data from Sprout Social,  66% of consumers want brands to engage in social and political issues. The numbers are even higher for those age 18-34, 73% of whom believe brands should join the conversation.

And making consumers happier equates to increased brand equity and greater opportunity for conversion. Indeed, 87% of consumers would buy a product based on a company’s advocacy for an issue they care about. But is advocacy enough to gain customers’ trust and build brand loyalty? What kind of risks and rewards are potentially at play when a brand decides to comment on a social or political issue? 

Brands who make statements like those made in the “Dream Crazier” ad stand to lose segments of their loyal customer base who disagree with the political or social messages therin, potentially resulting in thousands in devastating profit losses. They also risk ostracizing key stakeholders who inform business strategy and direction. 

A number of brands who have incorporated socio-political messaging into their marketing have been accused of capitalizing on human suffering and inequities to turn a profit. Further, even if they agree with the meaning behind the messaging, consumers who get any inkling of inauthenticity behind a brand’s social or political message are often prepared to sully the brand’s name through social media smear campaigns or all-out boycotts.

On the other hand, consumers remain loyal to brands who choose to chime in on a controversial issue — and propel the message with real action — like TOMS has done for years with its one-for-one business model to provide shoes to impoverished children in developing countries, or Patagonia’s commitment to engaging in environmental conservation efforts. These brands and others like it have been able to build stronger brand equity through decided action — not just a few marketing initiative tear-jerkers. 

At the end of the day, the stakes are disproportionately in favor of Nike, who has steadfastly crowned Brand Finance’s annual list of the world’s most valuable apparel brands with an estimated overall value of $32.4 billion. They have a lot less to lose when it comes to standing up for what they believe in. 

Nike has demonstrated time and again that they are committed to investing in social good and their actions do not go unnoticed by consumers. Aside from their popular initiatives promoting youth health, Nike has introduced programs aimed at bridging equity gaps in communities across the world, campaigns in partnership with Girls, Inc., and the creation of Girl Effect, a nonprofit organization building youth brands with the goal of empowering girls. Nike Chairman, CEO, and President Mark Parker even deemed 2019 Nike’s “year for women.”

Nike has yet to introduce new initiatives focused specifically on closing the social disparities that exist between women and men in sports in the wake of the “Dream Crazier” campaign. Still, they are likely to continue reaping the benefits of generally positive consumer opinions of them because they have a demonstrated track record of taking action on social issues.

As consumer data indicates, even less dominant brands are poised to see higher conversion rates, increased loyalty, and greater overall value if they participate in socio-political discourse — on the condition that their rallying cries are backed with meaningful action that contributes to causes for which they advocate.  

Author Kendra Clark

A current graduate student in creative writing at the University of Cambridge, Kendra writes for a broad array of L&T's clients in industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing. She has consulted for tech startups in California and Washington, D.C. on editorial and brand strategy development. With a degree in philosophy and literature from Santa Clara University, she is a lover of poetry, vegan Thai food, documentary films, and arguing about Nietzsche.

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