Brands have been appropriating aspects of counterculture for decades — think the VW Beetle and flower power. But they’ve tended to shy away from explicitly embracing the actual aims of political movements that bring people out to protest.
At least until recently. Nike was a pioneer with its sponsorship of NFL quarterback and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick. But now, scores of other brands are embracing Black Lives Matter — Netflix, Twitter, Citigroup, Starbucks, Nordstrom, HBO, TikTok. They’re all expressing solidarity with anti-racism campaigns and calling for justice for George Floyd. Is it a risky business, or a smart marketing message?
Nike released a new ad last week. No images — just words on a screen. The company that’s been telling us for decades to “Just Do It” is now saying, “Don’t Do It … Don’t turn your back on racism.”
And it’s not just Nike. There’s a rush to anti-racist messaging by consumer brands. Kenneth Shropshire, CEO at the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University, attributes this partly to the clarity of the incident: Floyd’s death under a policeman’s knee, captured on video, in a moment of pandemic.
“The severity of the incident, near-universal reaction and the time that people have, the focus that they’re paying to media,” Shropshire said.
These messages can be smart marketing, appealing to young consumers. But Saleem Alhabash, professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State, said more is at stake for corporate America.
“Communities are now suffering,” Alhabash said. “Companies and brands should be asking what side of history do I want to be on?”
There can be risk for brands standing with civil rights protesters while looting and arson fill TV screens. Americus Reed, professor of marketing at Wharton, said it could alienate “law and order” consumers.
“You are willingly saying I’m going to be OK with some customers walking away from my product,” Reed said. “But there are going to be enough who are deeply loyal because you’re taking that stance.”
There’s another risk for outspoken brands: seeming to jump on the bandwagon just to score good PR and sell more. Shropshire said companies will need to follow up on their racial-justice agendas with concrete action. He’s analyzed major apparel companies, including Nike.
“The numbers in terms of the boardrooms, none are leaders in corporate America in terms of diversity at the highest levels,” Shropshire said.
He said consumers who agree with companies’ talk will be waiting to see if they walk the walk after this crisis is past.