I feel stronger when I wear Nike products. The company is also likely the best advertiser in modern business history. I know many of the people who work there, across many levels of management and at their agency, Wieden+Kennedy. They are sincere about making the world a better place through athletics and competition. Yesterday, I interviewed Nike board member, and my old boss, Dean Emeritus Peter Henry. The Portland firm’s most recent campaign was typical Nike, capturing the moment and unafraid to take risks. A twist on the iconic “Just Do It” campaign:
I believe this is a seminal moment in advertising. Simply put, brand-based social messaging has jumped the shark. After consulting to the CEO/CMO of every major athletic apparel shoe company in the world, my advice is to…
Just Stop It.
Systemic racism is a serious issue, but a 30-second spot during The Masked Singer doesn’t prove you are serious about systemic racism. From WWII until the ascent of Google, brands served as shorthand for a product’s promise and performance. Emotion injected into a mediocre product (American cars, light beer, cheap food) was the algorithm for creating hundreds of billions in stakeholder value. Kodak moments and teaching the world to sing translated to irrational margins based on an emotional response to inanimate products.
A consumer brand addressing social issues was largely verboten. Michael Jordan reminded us that it meant alienating a large segment of your market (“Republicans buy shoes too”). But recently, brands saw an opportunity to take risks and embrace the orthodoxy of their core consumer — more socially conscious millennials and Gen Z.
Nike embraced Colin Kaepernick and took a calculated risk that paid off. The math? People of color have a higher representation in Nike’s customer base than the population at large. Most of Nike’s consumers are under the age of 35, live outside the US, and are willing to spend $200 on Vapormax Flyknit shoes. This is Latin for progressives. This was a genius, shareholder-driven move.
The tools that undermined the brand age — letting people skip the brand promise and conduct diligence on product performance (in a .70-second Google search) — are the same tools now deployed to determine if the music matches the words when consumer brands post on Instagram that they stand with George Floyd. Statements in sans serif font on a black square, assuring us the firm is “appalled by recent events” seem near meaningless.
The battle to say something without saying anything has been fierce: “The NFL is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country.” “As a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose” (Target). Just as the Coca-Cola Company taught the world to sing, it feels as if the 700+ person Facebook communications team has taught corporate America how to feign concern while doing nothing.
Just as brand equity has moved from promise to performance, it’s now moving from words to actions. J.C. Watts, Republican from Oklahoma, said, “Character is doing the right thing when nobody is looking.” Firms stating what is basic political orthodoxy is not leadership but performance. Words are meaningful, but actions are profound — speak louder. So far, the actions have been anemic. GM announced an advisory committee; YouTube pledged 35 minutes of ad revenue ($1 million), and McDonald’s announced a town hall.
More tangible, Goldman CEO David Solomon said the firm will donate $10 million and triple donations from employees to causes that combat racial injustice. Danish firm Lego’s actions stand out — they donated $4 million to fight racism and inequality and announced they are pulling advertising for police or White House sets (polarizing, but definitive). Cisco gave $5 million — meaningful. Mark Ritson put it well: “If you care about black lives, you don’t get inspired by an Instagram post. You get inspired by black faces in the boardroom.”
My L2 colleague Danielle Bailey asks the right question:
Nike was criticized this week for having only 8% African American VPs (as opposed to 13.6% of the population). To be clear, correlation doesn’t equal causation here. Jonathan Haidt makes a useful distinction between equal-outcomes justice (numbers that look equitable) and proportional-procedural justice (a process that corrects for previous lack of access but that is also fair). Lack of representation relative to population doesn’t prove these companies are racist or that they aren’t trying to make up the difference. But the numbers show the trying needs to hurry up: We have a ways to go.
Also, it feels as if a key component of this dialogue is missing — civil debate. Simply put, it feels as though if you don’t subscribe to the entirety of a predetermined orthodoxy, you are risking your career and reputation. Either you’re a liberal and there is horrible racism infecting every area of life for people of color, and white people should be ashamed. Or you’re a conservative and people of color should shut up and deal, as a lot has been done already. If you question a line from the party handbook, you are shut down and subject to cancellation.
I’ve had trouble getting thought leaders with domain expertise on the issue of hiring and who happen to be caucasian, to speak publicly on the issue as, at this point, it seems many arenas are more concerned with the speakers’ background than their ideas and openness to debate. Any movement that doesn’t invite evidence and debate, turns from doctrine to dogma and alienates constituencies required to enact real, enduring change. We should be open to dialogue on all sides.
Actions that address social justice are powerful messages. Messages about the importance of social justice are just messaging. We are the sum of our actions, not our words. Firms, and all of us, are learning we need to be more.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Listen to my conversation with Peter Henry — about Nike, how brands are responding to this moment, and how to be a better husband/partner/dad on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.