I was only five years old when Nike’s famous “If You Let Me Play” ad was aired on television. It came to my attention a few years ago when I was studying marketing and the impact of bold ad campaigns. Nike’s initial success came from targeting male athletes, but, deciding not to just ‘leave it there’, the brand started to make small waves in the 1980s by focusing efforts on creating sports gear for women. At a time when women’s sport was under-funded, under-broadcasted, and under-appreciated, Nike threw away the “shrink it and pink it*” concept and started pushing those boundaries. Some would say that women’s sport is still under-valued, I guess you just need to take a look at how much airtime male sport gets vs. female sport.
*Just take an item designed for men, make it smaller and add some colour.
Nike shows how to Just Do It.
Nike’s 1995 “If You Let Me Play” campaign was their step in the fight for letting girls participate in sport. In a world where “you throw like a girl” was seen as an insult, Nike wanted us to shrug and say “thanks”. In the advert, we see diverse women of various ages talk about the benefits sport could have on their lives if you just “let them play”. This was a big leap for inclusive campaigns and the first time a brand like Nike made it unacceptable to say sports aren’t for girls. Sadly, some people still hold those outdated views, but it’s no longer seen as socially acceptable to have this perspective on the world.
Nike didn’t just stop after their campaign in 1995, they’ve proactively been fighting for women to take centre stage in sports ever since. Women working out shouldn’t be seen as anomalies, but as regular people. Nike practice what they preach with their celebration of Serena Williams. They haven’t just made a level playing field for women, they’ve confidently aligned their brand with Serena Williams, a sporting icon whose achievements are hard to rival.
In a ‘women in advertising’ survey by Attest, Nike was one of the most named brands when they asked “Name a brand that really ‘gets you’ when it comes to their advertising.” Someone answered: “Nike because they are like yeah go girls” [sic].
It’s only good if it’s authentic.
So why use Nike as an example of a brand that gets political? Because they’re 1995 campaign was far from their first or last controversy. In recent months we’ve watched the controversy surrounding their Colin Kaepernick “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.” ad campaign — their most divisive one yet. #JustBurnIt trended alongside #BoycottNike and the campaign resulted in a 2% share price drop for Nike. That’s not the end of the story, though. According to Edison Trends, a digital commerce research company: “Nike sales grew 31% from Sunday through Tuesday over Labor Day this year, besting 2017’s comparative 17% increase.” So, while Donald Trump tweeted his outrage for the campaign, people were out there buying Nike products in their droves.
How did this work for Nike? How did something so controversial lead to a staggering sales increase? Authenticity. Ad campaigns that are politically charged are always going to be risky and carry the potential of really screwing up. But this wasn’t Nike’s first rodeo. Nike didn’t build their Colin Kaepernick campaign just because it was a trending topic, Empower MediaMarketing says: “Brands that try to capitalize on the hot topic of the month but offer no real connection to its core values will be ripped apart by consumers.” The campaign allowed Nike to tie a key message back to their brand message — Just Do It. Authenticity wins with consumers. Always.
Information is everything.
Nike’s reward for the Colin Kaepernick campaign exceeded their risk. Was that by chance? Through luck? Neither. Nike know their demographic. They know their audience. They knew the outcome.
There are two main principles in marketing:
1. Know your audience
2. Be authentic, relevant, and connect emotionally
The first principle has always been good business practice — any business should know who they’re trying to talk to. The second principle has never been more important than it is today — market research suggests Millennials and Gen-Z consumers crave an experiential, digital, and socially shareable connection with the brands they choose.
How did Nike put these principles into practice with the Colin Kaepernick campaign?
1. Knowing their audience meant knowing the larger majority would support the decision to sign Colin Kaepernick.
2. Knowing the marketing environment that currently exists, Nike choose to align themselves authentically and be culturally mindful. They take a stand, regardless of the controversy.
If you can efficiently identify your target audience then you should tactfully show your support to causes. It’s becoming harder for brands to be vague about what they support nowadays, because consumers like to know that their beliefs align. Red Fan Communications states:
“Incorporate political commentary as long as it is aligned with your company’s values, mission and culture. Advertising campaigns can’t be created based on one person’s frustration or endorsement of a political figure or issue, but ad content can and should be reflective of what a company stands for, what it believes and what it values.”
Find the impact.
If something is going on in the political world that impacts your business or consumers, then, by all means, speak up. Brands should remain honest about who they are, don’t just jump on political controversy bandwagons for the sake of it.
Politics vs. culture.
Nike has always remained clever with their controversial campaigns. Choosing to establish a point-of-view on cultural trends, as opposed to openly engaging in political debate. Using this point-of-view allows Nike to strengthen the connection they have with their audience, because they know it’s a shared perspective.
Morals in marketing.
91% of Millennials say that they would switch to another brand if it was associated to a cause they cared about. There’s always been a desire to express yourself through the products you buy. In this recent Medium article by Zander Nethercutt, he talks about how consumers don’t buy products, but better versions on themselves. Talking about The Pepsi Generation, Nethercutt says:
“The Pepsi Generation was revolutionary because it was the first time a brand convinced people to purchase their product by focusing on the type of person that doing so made them.”
It’s no longer about your product per se, it’s about what your product says about the person using it. I start to wonder about this in my own product choices. I use Mac over Windows, I buy iPhone over Android, I use Twitter and not Facebook. What does this say about me? Does it say anything? Do I just like Mac? Am I just a wannabe hipster?
Nethercutt goes on to say:
“Consider Apple. To be an Apple user — at least in the era of Jobs — was to "think different". Critics might laugh at that characterization of an Apple user now, given the homogeneity and ubiquity of Apple products, especially among the wealthy. But those critics would miss what Apple didn’t: people don’t buy products because of what those products do, they buy products because of what they can do — or what they imagine they can do — with them.”
We can apply this to the political stance of brands too. Nowadays, brands are focusing on our sense of what’s right and wrong. Incorporating causes into messaging, brands allow this idea that consumers can ‘vote’ by buying their products, ergo supporting the kind of world they want to live in. “I support Colin Kaepernick; therefore, I shall buy Nike trainers.” You see?
It’s not just Nike tapping into this trend:
· TOMS is a perfect example with their One for One campaign where they promise to help a person in need for every purchase a consumer makes.
· Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign celebrates body confidence and shows the natural physical differences among women.
· Peak Design’s “Give a Shot” campaign helps to connect creatives with non-profits for voluntary work.
“I support helping someone in need; therefore, I shall buy TOMS”, “I support body confidence, therefore I shall buy Dove”, “I support volunteer efforts; therefore, I shall buy Peak Design.” And on and on it goes.
There’s criticism to this kind of marketing too, because, is anything 100% agreeable these days? However, the pros outweigh the cons. Brand messaging becomes more memorable and connects with consumers. The revenue speaks for itself.
Making a difference.
Should brands be braver with their political stance? Yes. If they know their audience and the political stance aligns, in some way, to their brand messaging then, yes. It’s campaigns like those aforementioned that tip the scales and put a spotlight on issues that need noticed. If it wasn’t for Nike’s 1995 “If You Let Me Play” campaign, would we be as accepting of women in sport as we are now? Would it have taken longer? We’ve still a long way to go, but was this the tipping point?
Whatever product you’re making, if an opportunity presents itself for you to make a positive impact or include marginalised sections of the population, you should open yourself up. It could be potentially life-changing for those marginalised groups to be ‘invited’ in by your brand.
Go ahead. Just Do It.