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A step too far even by Nike’s standards

Wading into such a polarising issue as race needs to be handled with extreme care

Gulf News

A few days ago, the share price of Nike fell 2.7 per cent in response to a controversial new ad campaign and purposeful step into the midst of a political storm.

On the 30th anniversary of the brand’s “Just Do It” campaign, Nike shifted from celebration to controversy when it plastered the words, “Believe in something. Even If it means sacrificing everything” across Colin Kaepernick’s face.

Kaepernick is the quarterback who knelt during the US national anthem, which is played at the start of National Football League games. By defying the tradition of standing to give honour to the flag, he was protesting against US police brutality and racial injustice. He then sued team owners for allegedly colluding to keep him off the field.

Because of his decisions, Kaepernick has become one of the most polarising players in America. His choice of when and how to stand in solidarity for a needed cause made him appear to be standing against patriotism. He ignited a firestorm between those in favour of preserving a tradition that is so entrenched in sporting identity, and those using sport for freedom of expression.

Kneeling during the national anthem is one of the least popular political stances a business could support, but Nike is entitled to its opinion. It is also entitled to actively support player protests and athletes’ freedom of expression on issues of great importance to the society. But, when they took sides and boldly supported Kaepernick by making him a poster child of their campaign, they made me wonder, am I showing my support for their view each time I put on my training shoes?

Nike doesn’t know this, but it’s been my partner in sports since fifth grade. For over 40 years, it’s been my “go to” brand. Nike is the only brand of shoes that I run in, play basketball in, and wear on any other type of sports field, court, or course. With its customisation service, I’ve never felt closer to the brand.

Being able to design the classics with the colours that I want has personalised a brand that I’ve literally hustled through life. For 30 years, Nike’s tagline, “Just Do It”, was an emotive symbol of pride that for me, evoked memories of winning in the midst of fierce competition.

Now, as the brand reaches its milestone anniversary, it’s redefining the meaning of one of the world’s most recognised slogans.

Nike’s history of sticking with players embroiled in controversy, even personal disgrace, is very different than promoting a player’s cause. Should a brand stand for an issue or cause? Yes, if they want to.

In a free market every company should be able to make decisions about what they stand for and who they serve. The customers also have a choice: do business with them or with somebody else.

Commercially speaking, research suggests that about a third of consumers will spend more money with a company that shares their values. Given that this is such a polarising topic, will that one-third for Nike be with or against them? Fortunately for the iconic sports brand, most consumers are less engaged and therefore not inclined to change their behaviour.

Even though consumers increasingly want businesses to express their views, I would caution brands against taking sides on controversial issues that are not built into their history. When you jump into a debate, you cause all of your consumers to choose if they want to be identified with your cause — and, in a world of options, they may just opt for your competitor.

I’m generally not an activist consumer, nor desirous for companies to wander into divisive social and political debates. Moreover, I don’t usually have a deep connection with brands.

But for me, Nike is an exception. While I, too, am against racial injustice, attaching this stance to the deep and personal history I’ve had with “Just Do It”, makes me cringe. My advice? Nike: don’t do it.

Tommy Weir is the founder & CEO of EMLC Leadership Ai Lab and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com

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