After Nike chose to cancel the release of its new Independence Day-themed trainers following backlash surrounding the design, Charlie looks at how BC professionals can advise their organisation on incidents involving their brand.
In this week’s news, I noticed Nike had to withdraw its latest design of trainers, due to be released on July 4th, Independence Day. The trainer’s design included the Betsy Ross flag, which was used post-independence from Britain and features 13 stars, representing the 13 states which were then in the union. The flag is controversial for some, as it was used at the time of independence when slavery was commonplace. In the last 20 years, it has also been used as a symbol for far right groups. Colin Kaepernick, Nike brand ambassador and former NFL player turned activist, asked Nike to reconsider the design, saying it would send out the wrong message about race. On the other hand, Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, is furious with Nike’s decision to pull the trainers, tweeting: “Words cannot express my disappointment at this terrible decision. I am embarrassed for Nike. Instead of celebrating American history the week of our nation’s independence, Nike has apparently decided that Betsy Ross is unworthy, and has bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism.” Josh Hawley, a fellow Republican senator from Missouri, called Nike “anti-American, pure and simple”.
There will be thousands of others voicing their opinion on the matter, but are these commentators really that interested in the design of a pair of sneakers, which they will probably never buy or wear, or is something else going on? In this case, I don’t believe it is the trainers which are offending, but instead both sides are using it to advance their own agendas. The Republicans and the right in the USA are using this to show their patriotism, their anti-political correctness stance and their love of their flag and country. For Colin Kaepernick, it is a chance to call out racism and any symbols associated with it. For the brand caught in the middle, they have to make the decision as to who they side with. Staying true to their brand, the brand that employed Colin Kaepernick who achieved fame by “taking the knee” before NFL games, Nike pulled the sale of the shoes.
For a long time, I personally have been struggling with this whole idea of political correctness; the right for people to speak their minds, dealing with people who express different views, censorship and self-censorship, and how this plays with individual views and with the brands we are paid to protect and crisis plan for. On one side, I joined the military and fought for the right of our citizens to say what they want, going by “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight for your right to say it”, but where does this end and hate speech begin?
There are numerous politically correct causes which you don’t particularly want to be seen on the wrong side of, such as racism, LGBTQ+, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, the Me Too movement and climate change, amongst others. If you intentionally or accidentally challenge or go against these ideas, you are likely to be in for a torrid of abuse, mainly on social media, by the “outraged” people advocating their own causes. The abuse is often by people jumping on the bandwagon, having not read the article, understanding its context or knowing the author. I have read, with indignation, about students in universities banning speakers whose views are not mainstream and might offend. Universities are supposed to be institutions where ideas are explored and the status quo is challenged, not places of groupthink, beige agreement. We have commentators who make their name by standing out from a crowd, who say it as it is, rally against political correctness and have dedicated followers because of it. President Trump is the most well-known of these, but in the UK there are many dedicated followers of Katie Hopkins and Tony Robinson. In all of this, I am still exploring where I sit with it all and where the balance lies between freedom of speech versus offending people.
In this world of many shades of grey, how do we advise our organisation on controversies or incidents involving their brand?
1. Look at any incident, especially if it is caused by our own actions, and think about how it is going to play with your customers and stakeholders. One of the most dangerous types of incident is brand hypocrisy. The Catholic Church in Ireland and America teaches high moral standards and tells its congregation how to lead their lives, intruding into personal matters such as contraception and abortion, but at the same time covering up paedophile scandals for years. When brands are more concerned about themselves and what they can get at the expense of their customers, they are in trouble and it is very difficult for them to draw a line under their actions and restore their moral authority. In the same way, Oxfam has lost a lot of its reputation and respect following its scandal of covering up employees sexually exploiting the very people they are meant to be helping.
2. Look at whether the incident affects your brand differentiator. Ryanair can get away with poor service, as people will keep coming back as they often have the cheapest fares. Apple can get away with occasionally putting out poor products, such as maps, because they have a very strong brand loyalty. If you have a strong brand, it is easier for you to weather a storm and move on.
3. Look at who is complaining. I have been writing a book on “Short business continuity exercises” and one of the exercises is a matrix of looking at your stakeholders. If you can see that those “outraged” are not you customers or never will be, then you can ignore them.
4. Advertising that offends might be to your organisation’s advantage, as it gives your brand greater coverage. Paddy Power and BrewDog are known for their edgy/cheeky advertising and this is part of their branding, helping them to differentiate themselves in their marketplace. On the other hand, H&M suffered reputational damage by producing a t-shirt with a “cheeky monkey” slogan on it, which was modelled by a black child for their advert. This incident was the focus of a previous bulletin, which you can read here.
5. If your brand issue is hijacked by power figures, such as in the Nike Betsy Ross case, and is being used to promote their personal agendas, how are you going to deal with this? If you are a large international brand, you can easily stand up to such figures, but if you are a small local brand this is a lot more difficult.
When there is a crisis concerning your brand, an early decision needs to be made on whether you will bow to the pressure and withdraw the controversial item or campaign, or whether you will weather the storm. Planning has to take place around which way the incident will go, will it continue to escalate or die down? What is the worst case, best case and most likely case? Often dealing with a brand issue is a judgement call, there is no algorithm to tell you how to handle it, but in the end being authentic to your brand is always the best path to follow.