Should Brands take a Stance on Social Issues?

By Gloria Dittus

Nike’s new advertising campaign with Colin Kaepernick has made waves among consumers, in the media and political circles. Regardless of your stance on Kaepernick and whether or not it’s acceptable to kneel during the national anthem, we can all agree that Nike’s campaign, which risks alienating many of its customers, is a bold one.

Before Nike unveiled their new campaign, they had a net +69 favorable rating among consumers, per a Morning Consult consumer survey report. It’s now declined 34 points to +35 favorable.

This begs the question should brands take a public stance on social issues if they don’t have to?

Over the past few years, there have been several notable instances of brands doing so. Chick-Fil-A expressed their support for traditional marriages. The NBA moved the 2016-2017 All-Star game from North Carolina to protest a state law that removed anti-discrimination protections for LGBT community. Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling assault-style weapons after the deadly Parkland school shooting. The list goes on.

Two years after Kaepernick ignited a firestorm of controversy by choosing to kneel on one knee during the national anthem, the NFL is still trying to decide how to handle this issue, one that’s become more complicated by the involvement of politicians.

“I think as far as sending a message, I think it’s a terrible message and a message that shouldn’t be sent,” President Donald Trump said in an interview with The Daily Caller. “There’s no reason for it.”

Nike’s use of Kaepernick brings this issue to the forefront of the media again. No one can deny, it’s created a buzz and many advertising experts maintain that “bold buzz” is a fundamental prerequisite for any campaign.

The outcomes of brands taking a public stance have been mixed.

Since Nike unveiled its new ad campaign, the company’s stock price is down approximately $2 per share. Conversely, since Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling assault-style weapons in February, its stock price is up roughly $3. NFL viewership has precipitously decreased over the past two years. Yet, NBA’s viewership continues to rise.

Admittedly, we don’t know if these respective gains or loses can be attributed to the public stances these organizations took on divisive issues, such as gun control and LGBT protections, or if its due to other factors such as product sales or public interest (as could be the case with the NBA and NFL).

Nike clearly understood that this new ad campaign could turn off large swaths of its customers.  However, they believe this campaign aligns with its brand identity & values. Nike has doubled down by launching skyscraper billboards in New York City and LA.  Clearly, major urban markets are likely to be sympathetic to the Nike message. Ultimately, the success of this campaign will be not judged by journalists or politicians but by consumer wallets. Will success in coastal urban areas outweigh the drawbacks felt in other markets?

Brands win the hearts of consumers by being authentic and relevant. Nike’s full ad challenges audiences never to settle. This is a challenge that can apply to brands as well. Brands have the opportunity to set themselves apart by being true to their values and not settling. Taking a public stance on a divisive issue can cut both ways.  Only time will tell if Nike’s advertising geniuses have made the right calculation.