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Rainbow or not, Nike has learned it can’t just change the England flag

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By Gordon Young, Editor-in-Chief

March 22, 2024 | 4 min read

Fans are unhappy with Nike’s latest England football strip. No, not the £125 price tag, but its colorful interpretation of the national flag. Gordon Young explores how Nike and other brands may be inadvertently ‘sewing’ division.

Nike's 'playful' England flag update

In the words of Sir Humphrey - the po-faced civil servant from Yes Minister - it seems a brave decision. An American company has decided to redesign the English flag.

The new Nike kit for the England football team features a rainbow-ish St George’s cross, with stripes of various colors replacing a solid red. And some fans have seen red. The Guardian calls them ‘rent-a-gobs’ but the decision has attracted criticism from across the political spectrum too, with Sir Keir Starmer of Labour joining forces with the right-wing Reform Party to call for a rethink.

Nike claims it was a playful update. But others assume the graphic is a nod to the LGBT flag and accuse Nike of jiggery-wokery. Whatever the motivation, the row undermines what a national flag is meant to represent – a symbol everyone can rally behind.

This little change also highlights how the world has become a lot more dangerous for brands. Once uncontroversial causes, from minuscule changes to a flag to supporting environmental to DEI are suddenly fodder on the front lines of the culture wars, as the board of Bud Light will testify, too.

The bottom line is that taking a stance can carry real risk.

And those brands that venture into this arena will have to accept that it means they will not be able to please all of the people all of the time.

In my view, there is nothing wrong with that.

Brands are just as defined by the haters as well as their supporters. Football is a great example. Scotland will never be a great market for the England football kit.

And another interesting example, of course is Ben & Jerry’s. The brand was in the news this week as parent company Unilever announced it was to be spun out into a separate entity with the rest of the conglomerate’s ice-cream businesses. But, of course, it is constantly in the news for other reasons. Its independent board takes an outspoken stance on current affairs such as Israel and UK immigration policy for example. This drew a rebuke from the UK Government, which said it “is working day and night to bring an end to small boat crossings. If that means upsetting a brand of overpriced junk food, then so be it.”

Many speculate that the ice-cream brand is getting too hot to handle for Unilever. However, others argue that its strategy will foster strong loyalty, particularly among younger generations.

It remains the top-performing ice-cream brand in the US and one of the best in the UK. In fact, in many ways, it seems to pursue a similar strategy to that of another Unilever brand, Marmite - it accepts its posturing will be loved and hated in equal measure.

But that, of course, brings us back to Nike. The normally sure-footed company has managed to upset everyone on all sides at the same time with its football kit. An own goal, in other words.

Brand Purpose Brand Strategy Football

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