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Marketing Social Issues

Like you, I have been unable to escape the Colin Kaepernick/Nike news explosion that occurred yesterday. The talk around my house centered on why any brand would want to court controversy.

For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about, Nike (the sports apparel and shoe manufacturing giant) is celebrating its 30th year of their “Just Do It” campaign. Among athletes showcased for this campaign is Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who, in 2016, began kneeling during pre-game playing of the national anthem to raise awareness of racial injustice and police brutality against minorities. His action has set off much political posturing, lawsuits, and social media ‘debates.’

No matter where you stand on this issue, the question today is about marketing—specifically marketing and social issues.

Why would a brand support a social issue? After all, as a business, isn’t our goal really just to sell our product or service? Not necessarily.

Changing Influence Over Consumers

Massive brands, like Nike, have the unique ability to influence culture. The “Just Do It” campaign doesn’t say literally, just go out and buy our shoes or clothes. Rather it is selling you the lifestyle that their product can be a tool to help you achieve. They are saying that being an athlete is a quest—a life choice. It isn’t a birth right, rather they celebrate the daily commitment to achieving your personal best. Nike focuses on the drive necessary to excel. The hard work and practice that it takes to make it to where you want to be. Showcasing athletes is a visual reminder that hard work can pay off.

Brands then bank on the fact that when you go to buy those shoes to help you jump start your new life, that they will have gotten enough of your attention, enough of your time, and enough of your belief system right so that you buy their brand over another. So yes, they are selling more shoes.

Once brands feel confident that they can buy your eyeballs and turn that into dollars, they can make the choice to sell more product to more new eyeballs or they can choose to sell more of their brand to their current eyeball customers. To simplify—they can say something like—we do really well selling running shoes, let’s see how we do at basketball shoes—a new set of eyeballs. Or they can say, we do really well selling running shoes, let’s see if we can sell compression tights to these same runners.

A marketing basic is that is takes less money to sell more product to an existing customer than it does to woo a new one. In essence, if you already love our shoe (or coffee, or burgers, etc.), then you are more likely to love our gym shorts (or iced coffee, or chicken sandwiches). The more they can capture your wallet, the more they influence you. They are no longer just buying your eyeballs for their messages, they are buying your heart. Love our shoes and our shorts? Well, let’s try this outer wear. Love that too? Great, tell your friends.

Consumers then become a brand ambassador. You tell your friends on social media what you like by being photographed in it. You influence others in your circle by playing well on the courts in your new shoes—then maybe they want to try them, too. This is how brands thrive. Delighting their customers. Turning their customers into brand ambassadors. Letting their customers influence new customers for them.

When a brand has the power of a giant like Nike or Starbucks, they have the ability to own more and more of your lifestyle. You start to consume more of the product they make because not only do you like their product, but you like how they match your lifestyle.

You love the shoes, the clothes, the app—they really motivate me to stick to this lifestyle. Or you love the hot coffee, the healthy snacks, the insulated cups, and music—they really seem to know me and who I aspire to be.

Now if that company that a consumer loves takes a stand on a social issue, that customer will hear that stand. It will become news that resonates with them. Consumers will then have to decide how they feel about that issue. Do they continue to support that brand? That depends on how well the brand has matched their message to their brand ambassadors—their most loyal customers—their true profit centers.

Nike is supporting the right to protest social injustice with Kaepernick.

Starbucks announced plans to hire 10,000 refuges over the next five years to support immigration reform.

These brands are betting that their most loyal customers will support their social agenda. That the causes that they are supporting will resonate enough with this group that sales will be positively impacted—not negatively. They are betting that if the brand takes a stand, so too will their brand ambassadors. They are using their influence to sway how people think and act.

Who is Your Core Customer

Whether the brand’s stand is supported by their customer base depends on how well the brand knows who their core customers really are.

Nike knows its most profitable, most zealous support comes from young, African-American men. Supporting Kaepernick with this customer as their goal is not a significantly risky move.

Starbucks customers are in 75 different countries in nearly 30,000 locations. The majority of these are in urban centers. A message of supporting immigration, therefore, is again, not a risky move for their core.

Not all customers equal the same value to a brand. An outlet or big box shopper has significantly different value to a brand than does the customer that comes to the brand’s flagship stores. Both may wind up purchasing Nikes, but one wanted to buy Nike because it means something to them. The other maybe just found the best deal on Nike over the other brands on the shelf.

The shopper that buys a coffee from a Starbucks attached to their big box store is different than that coffee drinker that goes to a Starbucks café.

Both sets of consumers bring profit to the brands, but the core customer will continue to come back over and over again—bringing more sales, bigger sales, and brand loyalty.

What does your brand stand for?

Nike has a long history of attempting to influence how you live. They want you off that couch and out in the world exercising. Now they want you off the couch and out there exercising in a country that is safe and fair for all of its citizens. They are trying to help make that change.

Starbucks supports global citizenship. Sales of their Ethos water, for example, has resulted in donations of $12+ million for water-stressed countries worldwide. Their stand on immigration is an extension of that global citizenship agenda.

But brands, even the biggest ones, can miscalculate their core customers and their influence over them.

Take Pepsi’s attempt earlier this year to take a stand on a social issue using an ad featuring Kendall Jenner. The ad showed Jenner supporting people protesting unexplained causes. Jenner may be a good choice to reach the audience Pepsi was trying for (young women), but the attempt to tie Jenner to a social platform fell flat.

Why? One reason is that Kendall Jenner isn’t famous for her stands against social injustice. She is famous for being young and beautiful. Another reason is that people didn’t really know what she was supporting in the ad. Was she a protestor? What was she protesting? Are we supposed to make the link that buying Pepsi is a protest move?

Pepsi didn’t clearly define what they stood for. Further, they didn’t align themselves with someone famous for taking a particular stance. Finally, they failed to connect to the hearts of their customers. Who is the Pepsi core audience? What do they feel and believe? How does Pepsi connect with them and influence those feelings? The argument is that Pepsi doesn’t have a strong grasp on their audience. They were caught trying to use feigned controversy for a feigned social agenda.

Research shows that millennials prefer products that support causes that they themselves believe in. That was what Pepsi was trying to tap into. But if you don’t have a cause, pretending you do will fail. Not having a social agenda is fine. All demographics prefer authenticity.

Is Controversy Profitable?

Nike stock fell Tuesday when the Kaepernick campaign went public. However, that same stock is rallying as I type. It will end today in an upward shift. Will it make up that loss? How does that ultimately impact the brand?

According to, in the last 24 hours, Nike has received $43 million in media exposure. That number will only go up. That exposure is worth more in the long run than is a stock drop—as long as the drop is temporary, and the exposure was on message to the core audience. The stock market doesn’t care if you are controversial or not. It only cares about your profitability. If investors see a company making money, they will buy. Millions of dollars of brand exposure is no small feat.

Companies make money by appealing to their core.

33% of Americans support kneeling during the anthem. 38% do not (also according to The bottom line for Nike will be who is that 33% that side with Kaepernick. If they are the under 35, urban, diverse, youth culture as attributed, then Nike will come out of this campaign with a renewed passionate core consumer. If they lose the casual buyer in the process, their gamble is that the renewed vigor outweighs that loss.

If your stand is authentic. If your brand has a core consumer base that loves it. If your message is on target with who you are and what you believe in. And if you are ready to face the worst-case scenario, then yes, controversy can most certainly be profitable.

You likely didn’t hear as much about the Starbucks controversy. Immigration was a stand that, in retrospect, served to buoy devotees of the brand and didn’t do much damage for casual consumers. The topic isn’t any less political than is Nike’s. President Trump tweets about both issues. The difference here is the marketing. Nike made their support a campaign and put the dollars behind it. Starbucks made theirs a press release. As in all things marketing—if you want the message to resonate, you have to capture the eyeballs.

Businesses exist to sell products or services. Many also exist to support a mission outside of their own profitability. The callous among us can say that Nike, or Starbucks, or any other organization, is only taking a stand for profit. The hopeful will say that they are doing it to improve our world. The choice of consumers is to vote with their dollar for the brands (and causes) they support.

Pro or Con, controversy gets coverage. Marketers must learn to use it wisely.

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