Yes Nike, Great Brands Are Polarizing!

I am sure you must have heard about Nike using Colin Kaepernick, the American footballer, in its new advertising campaign. In brief, Kaepernick’s refused to stand for the American anthem played prior to the start of the football match to protest police violence against African Americans. This earned him the ire of President Donald Trump, who immediately recognized it as the type of wedge issue that earns votes by splitting the electorate into opposing camps. Indeed, as a master marketer, Trump intuitively understands that great brands are polarizing. As I have previously observed that the test of a great brand is: Does anybody hate you?

Brand Promise, Brand Position and Brand Purpose

The immediate response to the Nike decision was by those who disliked Kaepernick’s anthem protest. Consumers uploaded images on Twitter and other social media burning Nike merchandise. Those unhappy with what they considered a deplorable decision by Nike promised to forever boycott the firm products. As a result, the price of Nike stock fell by 2.7% the following day. All of this adverse reaction may suggest that Nike made a terrible mistake. Yet, I am convinced otherwise. To make my argument, I will distinguish between three different “Brand Ps” within my framework of defining and differentiating brands.

Brand Promise is at the most basic level. It is a test any brand must pass to exist. What is the fundamental benefit that the brand promises its customers. Failure to deliver on this core promise will produce disappointed customers and appalling rates of repeat sales for the brand in question.

Brand Positioning encompasses brand promise. But, it goes beyond that to identify how the brand differs from its immediate competitors. Brand positioning is the bedrock of a strong brand. It helps define why the brand exists within its competitive set. Passing this test avoids ruinous commodity status (when many brands offer similar promises) and delivers greater financial success.

Early in my teaching career, I focused exclusively on Brand Promise and Brand Positioning as the fundamental driving concepts in brand management. For most brands, clearly and crisply articulating these is usually a challenge. However, over the past fifteen years, as first articulated in my Marketing as Strategy book, I am increasingly convinced that great brands cannot simply rest on brand promise and brand positioning. They are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for brands in the future. Consumers are demanding more from brands: they desire brands to have a social conscience.

Brand Purpose is why does the brand exist with respect to its larger role in society. How does it contribute to making the world a better place? Not all brands have a brand purpose, nor should they. Authenticity is the foundation on which brand purpose is built. If brand purpose is seen as a marketing ploy, then it will fail. It is better not to attempt to articulate a brand purpose in this case. An authentic brand purpose demands more from the brand and its consumers.

Consider, the tagline that goes with the Kaepernick Nike advert Nike:

One can hardly aspire to a more inspirational call as a brand. And there can hardly be a better exemplar of this in the current sports milieu than Kaepernick.

A Nuanced Understanding of the Market

The backlash that Nike faced could hardly have been unexpected for them. Without having any inside information, I am sure they must realize that they need to ride out the short-term aftermath, and instead, focus on the longer-term positive impact on the brand.

In the western world, the data is unequivocal that, older consumers feel that companies (and brands) should not ally themselves with politically and socially divisive causes. Younger consumers, who are more idealistic, fall in the opposite camp. They expect brands to stand for something beyond commerce. They are more likely to work for, and favor, brands that are associated with a higher social purpose.

Who are the consumers of Nike? Donald Trump and his cohort are not the future of the brand. Furthermore, racial injustice is an issue that resonates more with younger consumers, just as does gender equality, environmental stewardship, and host of other progressive values. In a sense, Nike has shrewdly put itself with this advertising campaign on the right side of history as well as its current and future business. Not to mention the loads of free publicity they have received on social media and traditional press. This morning, I am looking at full-page coverage in the Financial Times!

Of course, by taking a stand, you limit your audience. Those who dislike the Nike advertisement may indeed stop patronizing the brand. But being universally loved is neither achievable, nor desirable. As I have often observed in class, great brands are polarizing. They are not built by those managers who are faint of heart. I may love Nike and hate Trump, while you may fall in the opposite camp. But as a marketing professor, I recognize the brand power of both.



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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Sharath Adapa says:

    very insightful sir look forward more such insights from you


  2. Shivadhan KM says:

    I feel Nike is right here and one should have thought strong to stand for it. I guess eventually people do realize that Nike got nothing to do with it.
    Nicely put!


  3. Sharath Adapa says:

    Well articulated sir its very easy to sit on the fence but Nike was daring enough to stick to its stand may be they are giving a subtle hint of their brand purpose .


  4. Chander Gadhvi says:

    Hi Nirmalya
    Nike is a rebel, it is irreverent and very thick skinned and it is not afraid to take positions . This is the way Nike rolls… like it or not!


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