How Nike reframed brand purpose in the age of social-conscious marketing

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Colin Kaepernick's now-famous Nike ad.

Many will argue that Nike’s recent 30th Anniversary ‘Just Do It ’ campaign featuring former NFL star and #BlackLivesMatter campaigner, Colin Kaepernick is an example of major American conglomerate with a dodgy human-rights record exploiting a topical news issue for their own gain.

However, for others, this is the strongest marketing campaign since Patagonia told us not to buy their clothes. For a brand of Nike’s size and global impact to take a stand by not only supporting Kaepernick - who was the first NFL star to ‘take a knee’ during the singing of the national anthem in protest of police brutality and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement - but make him the face of their 30th Anniversary campaign, is a powerful statement of intent.

Launching ahead of the new NFL season, the new advertising campaign has redefined the Nike brand purpose, under the slogan: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The idea of a brand believing in something and being strong enough to take a stand (or a knee) is now what a new wave of socially conscious consumers expect from the brands they follow, buy from and talk about. It’s no longer enough to pay lip-service about your corporate responsibility - brands now have to live and breathe it. Just ask Pepsi.

Cause Marketing in the age of the social-conscious consumers

Socially conscious consumerism is not a new concept, but brands’ response to the demands of their audience and consumers is. In a survey commissioned by Channel 4, 57% of young people said they believe brands should use their advertising to raise awareness of social or ethical issues. There is now an expectation that brands should, and will, act more responsibly and if they don’t, consumers will respond by not buying their product or even boycotting them altogether.

We are seeing challenger brands taking on these consumer concerns and putting sustainability and ethical business practices at the forefront of their brand messages; just take a look at brands such as Ever Lane, Lyft, Toms, Innocent and many, many more.

Brands are now focusing on the impact they have on the world and this is being felt across multiple sectors, from sustainable fashion, to packaging and plastic bag changes in supermarkets. In a recent survey of UK shoppers by ThoughtWorks, it was found that over the next decade, plastic waste will be shoppers’ number one concern - more so than price.

Additionally, food waste and food sources are also strong reasons to drive purchases.

This huge shift in consumerism is starting to impact how brands position themselves and many established industry-leaders are getting in on the act. Coke is running a recycling campaign across the UK throughout September, Lego launched a range of plant-based plastic pieces sourced from sugar cane, Adidas recently created a line of trainers using Ocean plastic, supermarket chain Iceland has committed to going plastic-free by 2023, and H&M launched a line of recycled clothing to showcase the possibilities of sustainable fashion.

Nike are now a challenger brand with purpose

Nike have overnight taken a challenger-brand ethos and given any young person who believes that the brands they follow, purchase from, or talk about should have a purpose and opinion.

More than half of respondents to the Channel 4 survey stated that brands should be a force for good in the world, rather than just selling products and services and 60% of consumers overall say any brand can start a conversation about important issues .

By having Kaepernick as the face of the campaign, Nike has taken a powerful political stand and great brands lead by example. Will it work? Well, according to Edison Trends sales were up 31% over the Labour Day weekend in the US.

Having launched the first ad on Labour Day Monday, Nike not only capitalised on the buzz surrounding the new NFL season but were able to transcend sport by making their campaign, and in effect their brand about “sacrifice”.

Some might suggest this is a lofty position to adopt, but it is one that seems to have resonated with a young audience, who clearly want to believe in the positive power of the brands they support. However, this positioning has not been without its critics and some people took to social media to display their anger and vitriol at Nike using #nikeboycott, and in the most extreme cases burning the brands’ clothes and shoes.

As Christopher Miller, Activism Manager for Ben & Jerry’s said at a sustainable brands conference in June, “It’s better to be deeply loved by some than to be tolerated by many,” and Nike are now finding this out for themselves. Miller went on to add, “we don’t do CSR based on who our customers are or what they care about; we follow our own purpose and values and hope it will resonate with others.”

This need for a brand to have its own sense of purpose is now critical for building a long-term sustainable business. Fans and followers reward it with loyalty and passion and younger consumers now expect it from brands, 60% of the 16- to 24-year-olds surveyed by Channel 4 claimed to notice ads more if they deal with important issues. In that case, Nike just got noticed in a big-way.

Tom Jarvis is founder and managing director of Wilderness

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