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Kaepernick campaign; no harm, no foul?

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

The reaction of pundits to Nike’s “believe in something” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick is so confused that it offers no lead for companies about the wisdom of doing something similar.

It’s common for PR experts to call any whiff of controversy a #PRfail, but some have claimed that the vitriolic US reaction against Nike doesn’t matter. Pundits who have criticised “woke washing” have bizarrely praised Nike’s campaign, which comprises of adverts but no changes to their business practices.

PR experts who usually tut-tut about controversy have contradicted themselves by advising businesses to copy Nike and “just do it” if they’re considering controversial marketing.

So, we’ve deconstructed the controversy and drawn on our research to understand the real lessons for businesses.

The short answer is that annoying people rarely harms any business, unless the people you annoy in large numbers are your own customers. Bizarrely though, customers overlook self-indulgent marketing. Customers, especially of big brands, usually return to their old purchasing habits.

Why annoy customers?

We start with the most perplexing question: why modern companies even consider the risk of annoying customers by confronting their personal points of view.

There are two reasons – neither very good; in a noisy world, marketing campaigns aren’t discernible unless they are noticeable; and modern business professionals want their working lives to “make a difference”.

These lead to campaigns on issues, and that generate noticeable impact. Courting controversy is an easy way to stimulate a reaction. This is probably why Nike goaded itself into siding with a divisive figure. Like a corporate Miley Cyrus, it must keep ratcheting up the stakes.

Both these reasons are behind the contortions being used to claim the campaign was in the words of one US marketer, a “gangster genius marketing ploy

No appeal to Millennials

The most common rationale is that Nike ran the advert to appeal to ‘Millennials’. This is a massive assumption to make. PEW Research Center has found that Millennials support relatively simple issues like gay marriage or high-profile issues like increased immigration but are not uniformly “socially progressive”.

Moreover, the older cohort of this generation is already becoming more conservative as their earnings increase.

The fallacy is that a values-based marketing ploy aimed at siding with one audience will not get them to purchase a product. Sales behaviour shows that people are not impressed or disgusted enough by values campaigns to change purchasing behaviour – as long as the product and service remains the same.

Nike strangely confirmed that the campaign is about marketing, not principle. To justify itself, it claimed there was an (outlandish) 30% jump in online sales in the two days immediately after the campaign start.

People don’t want your values

Jessica Stillman wrote on Inc that data ‘proved’ customers wanted Nike to make a stand – but quoted a single survey by Sprout Social that simply showed a small majority of respondents wanted companies to take a stand on social issues – but didn’t ask what sort of stand. People who quote this survey ignore that respondents said business activism had no impact on their attitudes or purchasing!

In contrast, a much deeper survey last year by 4A, the US advertising industry association, showed two thirds of consumers do not want companies to take a stand on political matters.

What was particularly revealing about this survey was that 4A found that marketing people overwhelmingly believe that businesses should take a stand on social issues. So marketers are following what they think, not what their customers want.

The 4A finding held true when attitudes were surveyed immediately after the Nike advertisement. Nike’s favourability fell by 50%. Every possible consumer faction thought less of the company. Even its own customers were evenly split on the wisdom of Nike running the campaign. Online, marketers universally claimed it was a great move.

Controversy is not bad

One of the more confusing aspects of praise for the Nike campaign is that in other circumstances people call vitriolic public reactions a massive PR disaster.

Stillman once called a tweet comparing a sale to a public uprising in Cairo during the Arab Spring  a “spectacular fail” because “justifiable condemnation rained down on the brand.”

But in the Nike case, she and others have mocked people burning shoes as an “absurdist spectacle” of no consequence.

When most people call something a “PR fail” what they really mean is that they don’t like what the company did or said.

The only useful measure is the attitude of customers. If you sell meat, there’s no point being bothered by a protest from vegans. They aren’t customers.

By the customer measure the Nike campaign was a fail. Genuine customers were demonstrably bitter and by surveys, evenly divided. That is not a result most companies would want.

But is it a PR disaster, or a PR success? The measure of that is what customers do next: whether sales rise, fall or stay the same.

Customer apathy

In surveys, customers angry at a company stance say they are much less likely to buy from the company. While customers who support a company stance say it makes no difference to their buying intentions.

The unfortunate truth is that in most controversies, customers only stop buying or switch suppliers when their health is threatened (see what has happened to the Chipolte fastfood chain in the US). Our own research shows that most the very big brands can even kill people with defective product, and sales decline only for an average of three months.

It seems like some companies are almost too big to fail from bad events. BP poured crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico and sales climbed. Toyota replaced faulty car brakes that killed people and sales of affected models returned to normal within a year.

The impacts are even less for things that annoy rather than harm customers. Nike has already been harshly spotlighted and criticised for treatment of workers who make its gear, and for its internal culture. There’s been no discernible impact on sales.

Assuming Nike doesn’t continue with the Kaepernick campaign, most annoyed customers are likely to resume purchasing behaviour. Thus, any sales impact for Nike will only be on cashflow from deferred purchases.

Customer apathy can mask long term change though. One Kaepernick campaign might not do it. But a series of signals that your company disagrees with a customers personal values could build up resentment among customers that later explodes in an inexplicable and unexpected reaction.

Golden rule: annoy anyone but your customers

The Kaepernick campaign and its ilk have a corrosive effect at a wider level; they build consumer cynicism. Customers are aware they’re being played for fools or pawns in the marketing games of well-heeled professionals. The vast majority of Nike buyers did not view the campaign as a principled stand: 38% thought the advert was a publicity stunt, and 30% had no opinion.

Consumers don’t usually much care for company value-signalling. But the more effort companies put into confronting or values marketing, the more consumers must work to ignore them. Resentful customers are even tougher to talk with.

The Kaepernick campaign will probably have no positive or negative blow-back on Nike. It’s too big to be affected either way. For the rest of the business world, our advice is that you can annoy who-ever you want, but never your customers.

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