Stop selling, start connecting

How does a brand simultaneously enrage some American consumers while driving an increase in sales among others? The answer isn’t a question of politics; it’s a matter of leveraging storytelling to drive authentic two-way conversations with your audience.

Nike excels at this. Featuring Colin Kaepernick in its recent ad campaign is arguably one of the most controversial marketing moves of the century. Social media users burned Nike gear. The President fired off angry Tweets. Nike’s stock fell, and then reached an all-time high. The campaign helped Nike achieve a 31 percent increase in online sales.

Know your brand, know your audience

Cynics argue that Nike looked at a politically divided world and sided with the largest market segment. But that overlooks the fundamental importance of knowing your brand’s values. If you can’t articulate what your brand stands for, how can you expect an audience to listen to your story? Nike has always been about the power of individual and the power of will — Just do it! Nike distilled its brand essence and brought it to a different realm because it 1) understood itself and 2) understood its audience — not just demographics, but attitudes.

Protection mindset or growth mindset?

Nike risked alienating some consumers. But that risk is misunderstood. Most marketers see their job as protecting the brand they’ve built. In fact, their job is to grow audiences by extending the brand’s story into the world, fully aware that each telling brings risk and reward.

Humans over data

Marketers tell stories because it’s the most powerful way to make a human connection. Watch the entire ad. Lost in the controversy is the fact that Kaepernick only has a few seconds of screen time over two-plus minutes of storytelling. The content—whether it’s Lebron James, an unknown high schooler, or a physically-challenged athlete—illustrates just how well Nike understands what the brand means to consumers. Data should inform that understanding, but it can’t drive it.

Passion is everything. Be a challenger brand

People root for challengers. Look at Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. A good story doesn’t try to appeal to the broad middle—it inspires the passions of raving fans, who then share that story with a wider audience. Nike is one of the largest brands on Earth, and yet it remains a challenger brand by knowing what it stands for, and how it stands out. Nike aligned those two things by including Kaepernick in its ad campaign. That’s something every brand should be able to do.

Tod Loofbourrow is CEO of ViralGains