Taking a stand: Nike Just did it right

Brands taking a stand is all the buzz these days as more than two-thirds of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a stance on prevalent political and social issues – a figure expected to rise with the next generation of shoppers.

Queue Nike’s most recent advertisement with former N.F.L. quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who stirred extensive (and continued) controversy in 2016 by kneeling during the national anthem to show support of people of color being oppressed in the United States, and bring attention to police brutality. On Monday, Kaepernick shared a photo on Twitter that is part of Nike’s campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of its ‘Just Do It’ slogan. The now viral and highly controversial black and white photo of Kaepernick is overlayed with the text “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Regardless of where you stand on Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Nike’s action of taking a stand was powerfully executed.

Before diving in, let’s first clarify what ‘taking a stand’ really means. Taking a stand is not synonymous with picking a side or sharing an opinion. A brand should not necessarily share their opinion on a topic, rather, their actions should demonstrate it, leaving no uncertainty in their stance. When Kaepernick first protested by taking a knee during the national anthem, Nike responded by stating that it “supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.” This statement is just that, a statement. It can be attributed a poster on the wall – it is Nike’s belief, with little to back it up. But by making Kaepernick one of the main figures for the 30th anniversary of Nike’s Just Do It campaign, as well as donating to his “Know Your Rights” campaign, solidifies that previous belief by turning it into action. Brands that take a stand, or have what we call a Brand Standpoint, know who they are, what they believe, and are not afraid to stand up in support of those things. When taking a stand, brands need to remain aligned, be bold, and garner the support of their stakeholders.  

Remain aligned
In response to the upswing of conscious active consumers, brands should avoid blindly adopting a position on any hot-button issue in the news. Instead, brands need to take a stand on issues that directly relate to their business, reflect their values, and support its purpose/mission. For example, Levis advocating for gun control is not super relatable to their business as a clothing company. Nike didn’t blatantly share their opinion on a controversial topic like gun violence or immigration. The athletic apparel giant instead supported one of its athletes, which is at the center of its business and mission statement to “Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Nike also has a history of supporting its athletes in similar situations, as well as promotes on its website that community is at its core and that it is committed to “creating more equal playing fields for all.”

Be bold
There will always be shoe-burners or sock-cutters that disagree with the stance a brand takes, potentially even as high up as the executive branch. This is often the scariest part for brands when taking a stand, but it shouldn’t be. By trying to appease everyone, a brand – especially consumer-facing ones – become generic and lack an identity. Having a Brand Standpoint allows a brand to lead the way towards change. As a brand leader, Nike raised the bar and inspired others to follow. They took bold action that aligned with their culture and what was best for their stakeholders. Furthermore, taking a stand, like many other corporate citizenship actions, is part of a long-term strategy and should be done in moderation. Similar to that of greenwashing, aiming for short-term gains by taking a stand on an issue can be detrimental as it will come off as less genuine and minimize the weight of the impact towards the issue.

Gain stakeholder support
The overall effectiveness of a brand taking a stand relies on stakeholder support. Having a Brand Standpoint, and taking actions that reflect it, allows a brand to build a strong identity with which its stakeholders can align to, and embody. Beyond the customer’s desire for brands to take a stand, brands must ensure that they have the support of their various audiences, especially those that are affected by the issue at hand and who can offer the greatest support.

Nike’s most influential stakeholder group and arguably one of its greatest assets that directly fuels a majority of the company’s sales is its community of sponsored athletes. Within the athletic apparel industry, brands are vying with one another to secure sponsorship deals with top athletes. When top superstar athletes are deciding on which brand to sign with, do you think they are solely comparing the multi-million dollar sponsorship deals? Or do you think that they are going to take a hard look at what the brand stands for before they wear the logo on their chest? And do you think up-and-coming superstar athletes are taking note of Nike’s support of its athletes for when their sponsorship offers begin to roll in? NBA superstar, Stephen Curry, recently stated that “there is no amount of money, there is no platform I wouldn’t jump off if it wasn’t in line with who I am.” This was in response to controversial comments made by the CEO of Under Armour, Curry’s current sponsor.

Taking actions and stances that align with a brand’s values and mission allow it to build a strong identity for its audience to champion. Since they know Nike’s identity, it should be no surprise when top athletes, who carry immense reach and influence over fans (customers) actively support Nike’s stance.

This is only the beginning
While Nike executed the act of ‘taking a stand’ properly thus far, there is still a lot of work for the company. In the metaphorical movie of taking a stand, the actual action/announcement is only one scene somewhere in the middle of the film. There is extensive pre and post work to be done, which largely exists around the communication efforts to all appropriate audiences. Nike will need to continually reinforce and communicate why they took this stance and how it relates back to its values and mission.

Like all brands, Nike carries the obligation to view its impact with a holistic lens. While it is a brand leader when it comes to taking a stand, the company still has work to do around other areas of its business such as addressing its oversea labor woes and fixing its culture troubles.