Monthly Briefing

Brands taking a political stand: Why authenticity is key

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”

That was the headline on a Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, unveiled in September 2018. The NFL quarterback had started a wave of protests among US football players, who knelt during the national anthem in protest against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reaction was swift. Protestors began burning their shoes, and Nike’s share price dipped. The President of the United States tweeted that Nike was getting “absolutely killed with anger and boycotts”.

But then the share price began to rise. Nike gained $6 billion in market value, while online sales grew by 31%. What was going on? One commentator put it succinctly: “Old angry white guys are not a core demographic for Nike.”

It’s clear that brands have much to gain from “being political”. One recent survey of US consumers found that 66% want companies to take a stand on social and political issues. Politics plays a significant role in people’s perception of brands, particularly in the polarised political landscape of the US, where Democrats prefer Kraft Heinz and Toyota, and Republicans lean towards Chick-fil-A and Chevrolet.

However, it’s also clear that companies must walk a fine line. For every success story like Nike, there is an embarrassing U-turn from a brand like Pepsi, accused of “trivialising” Black Lives Matter, or Under Armour, which went into crisis mode after its CEO endorsed Donald Trump.

How to take a successful stand

So, what are the success factors for brands taking stands? To get to the bottom of this, we have to understand why companies get involved in politics in the first place.

Firstly, a company may take a stand because it aligns with its corporate values, or the values of its employees. David Logan, Corporate Citizenship’s co-founder, writes here about Levi’s, which has a history of courageous stances on contentious issues because its leaders felt it was the “right thing to do”.

By standing up for the values they believe in, companies may see a benefit from attracting like-minded employees and customers. The National Rifle Association may be partly right when it says of Levi’s latest stand on gun control, “We can only assume that Levi’s accountants have determined that resulting skinny jeans sales will be enough to offset the permanent damage to their once-cherished brand.”

This leads to the second reason for taking a stand: building an authentic connection with consumers. So-called “activist brands” like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and Chobani look to appeal to a hardcore of values-driven consumers.

It’s no coincidence that many of these brands align with left-wing or liberal values. “Socially liberal segments of the public punch above their weight as potential customers,” according to Business Insider. Younger people also tend to interact more with companies through social media, where they look for personal connections with brands, and signal their politics through their consumption choices. “We’ve evolved to a point in branding history where consumers purchase things not because of their utility but because of what it signals to other people in their social milieu,” says Michael Serazio, a professor of communications at Boston College.

Such tactics aren’t foolproof. There’s always the danger that a large enough segment of the public will disagree with your stance to spark a significant backlash – as was the case for Lush, the UK cosmetics chain whose “spycops” campaign was condemned by politicians and saw staff intimidated.

Sometimes, though, the backlash is the point. This brings us to the third reason for getting political – standing out from the crowd. Nike knows its customers, and knows how to get them talking – from its women’s “Liberator” shoe in the 1970s, to its ad featuring HIV-positive runner Ric Muñoz in 1995. Nike knew that its choice of Colin Kaepernick would prove divisive, but it took a calculated risk that the resulting conversation would connect with its customers.

Why did Nike succeed while others failed? As New York Times culture writers Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham point out, Nike could have gone far further: “The campaign doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with [Kaepernick’s] initial reasons for sitting down and then kneeling… [It] isn’t even about police brutality anymore… It’s just about the idea of what? Of Colin Kaepernick.” In other words, Nike’s ad was divisive, but not too divisive.

This is not to imply cynicism on Nike’s part. The ad worked only because consumers saw it as coming from a place of authenticity, backed up by Nike’s historic support for liberal stances.

In an article for Boston University, Susan Fournier and Patrick Marrinan frame Nike’s success in terms of “cultural capital”: “Nike’s campaign appeals to customers – and drives Nike’s sales – to the extent it reflects customers’ existing values back at them.” This is contrasted with Gillette’s “The Best a Man Can Be” campaign, which not only asked customers to change their behaviour, but followed a history of ad campaigns mired in the very “toxic masculinity” they were campaigning against.

Go political or die trying

Faced with the risk of being the next Pepsi or Gillette, it’s understandable why some companies might decide that neutrality is their best bet. As a Dunkin’ Donuts executive recently put it, “We don’t want to engage you in political conversation, we want to get you in and out of our store in seconds… It’s donuts and ice cream – just be happy.”

But saying nothing is a political stance in itself. Even worse, if companies try to stay neutral, their brand may end up being co-opted anyway. Take, for example, Papa John’s and Fred Perry, both of which have found themselves “hijacked” by the online alt-right.

The trends that drive companies to take political stances – from building authentic connections with consumers, to attracting and retaining talent, to standing up for the values they believe in – will only continue to grow. Businesses may draw criticism by speaking on controversial topics, but they also have the opportunity to make a real and lasting impact on society.

“While taking a stand can be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option,” writes Levi’s CEO, Chip Bergh. “Business has a critical role to play and a moral obligation to do something.”

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