The response to Nike making Colin Kaepernick the face of its latest ad campaign was immediate. Those angered burned their shoes as the company stock price dipped in the days following the launch; but, shortly thereafter, online sales increased by more than 30 percent and, in just a week, the stock price rebounded.
Nike’s latest iteration of the popular “Just Do It” campaign may seem bold, but it isn’t shocking. In the ad narrated by Kaepernick, he says, “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy: Ask if they’re crazy enough.” The underlying message is about taking risks, pushing the limits – qualities the company has promoted for years. Nike has a reputation for more than just selling shoes. About innovation, the company says, “We dare to design the future of sport. To make big leaps, we take big risks.” This is a core part of Nike’s culture, so their deep dive into a hot political issue isn’t surprising.
While Nike strategically engages in politics, other companies get pulled into debates on which they’d prefer to remain neutral. Many have historically stayed away from politics entirely, but relying on a corporate strategy of avoidance no longer works the way it once did. As some have learned, saying nothing can do more harm than good when customers or employees expect a response to a political issue.
The key is knowing the right time to engage, and a few key factors can help determine whether your primary stakeholders, including customers, employees, and investors, will accept it.
First, is the issue relevant in some way to your business or culture? It’s not unreasonable for companies to speak out about topics that directly impact them. They have an obligation to stockholders, employees, and others to promote their own interests, even regarding politics.
Also, consider how a statement might align with the company’s brand. People are more tolerant of political viewpoints – including those that are controversial or different from their own – when the company has been open about its positions in the past. When an organization is transparent about its political leanings, most won’t be surprised when it makes a public statement, and many expect it. Some may even feel disappointment if a company holds back from taking a side in a political debate when doing so would be consistent with previously-stated positions.
Organizations that are honest and consistent in their positions, and that have a business interest in the issue, also have an opportunity to demonstrate real leadership by taking a political stand. Companies convey a sense of strength and purpose by assuming a leadership role, which most stakeholders will respect.
Corporate executives are paid to assess risk and reward in making difficult decisions. This is certainly true when determining whether to weigh in on any political debate.
“Believe in something,” Kaepernick says in the Nike ad, “even if it means sacrificing everything.”
For 30 years, Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign has included an impressive and very diverse collection of spokespeople, representing its very diverse customer base. Along the way, the company has been transparent and consistent in its positions on any number of issues. Taking a political stand on this polarizing issue was a bit risky, but it showed leadership. Nike understands its stakeholders well enough to know the short-term negative response to its new campaign would be outweighed by the long-term positive response.