Nike’s Kaepernick ad is ‘brand purpose’ at its worst – a fantasy to dupe young people

Nike is doing a disservice to young people by selling them sneakers via the fantasy that they should 'sacrifice everything' and be the next LeBron James or Serena Williams – when they just can’t because these athletes are ‘one in a billion’ – argues Bob Hoffman

This week, the whole Kaepernick/NFL/national anthem thing went off the rails with the release of a new campaign from Nike celebrating Colin Kaepernick’s commitment to “sacrificing everything” for the sake of one’s “dreams”.

The whole controversy is a political battle royal that pits an aggrieved [United States] president against aggrieved athletes: pits ‘patriotism’ against ‘free speech’; pits owners against employees; and pits Democrats against Republicans.

It is of no interest to me. I don’t care if football players stand on their head during the national anthem. What is of interest to me is the awfulness of the Nike spot.

It is stale, cliché-ridden nonsense that we’ve all seen 1,000 times. It is baloney posing as self-actualisation boosterism. It is star spangled bullshit. It could have been written by the most mendacious of the self-help con men who litter the corporate conference circuit.

It’s no longer enough for us to be “the best in the world,” now we have to be “the best ever”. And how do we do it? By “sacrificing everything”. This time Nike has taken its inspirational claptrap and gone way over the edge.

Nike is doing a terrible disservice to people – particularly young, poor, minority people – by selling them sneakers via the con job fantasy that they should “sacrifice everything” and be the next LeBron James or Serena Williams. They can’t. The LeBron Jameses and the Serena Williamses of the world are one in a billion.

Having taught young people for a few years, I have seen the confusion that this kind of slick, glib baloney can engender. “Sacrifice everything” for your dreams? Bullshit. Have your dreams, but do your fucking homework.

The Nike/Kaepernick thing falls into the category of ‘brand purpose’, in which brands try to represent social issues bigger than the products or services they sell. Brand purpose is a very hot issue in business these days.

So let’s put our politics aside for a minute and start the discussion about the wisdom of brand purpose where all marketing allegedly starts – with the consumer.

What does the consumer want who buys our peanut butter, our sweat socks and our vacuum cleaners? It has been my experience that, for the most part, she wants good tasting peanut butter, comfortable sweat socks and a nicely functioning vacuum cleaner.

It is the very rare consumer who is shopping for peanut butter, sweat socks or vacuum cleaners but is secretly hoping to fill a void in philosophy, ideology, or opinions. I find there is very little demand for more philosophy, ideology, or opinions. We seem to have quite enough already. And the market for them is well-supplied by our unrelenting news and social media creators. So why has ‘brand purpose’ become such an attractive idea to brands? I believe it is for reasons of vanity.

First we have the CMOs, marketing experts, and agencies who crusade for brand purpose. The truth is, very few in advertising or marketing are proud of being sales people. They love brand purpose because it takes their endeavors out of the realm of crass commerce and elevates them to the status of social virtue. It happens to be a lot more pleasant and respectable to stand for something noble than to sell stuff.

Then there are the CEO’s and corporate aristocrats. There is a certain type of middle aged man (and they are overwhelmingly male) for whom success and wealth are nice, but not enough. They want to believe that their power and money did not come from coarse business aptitude, but are the material manifestations of their enlightened vision.

They, too, love brand purpose. They can’t resist it because they are terribly susceptible to Guru-itis – the belief that their fame and money make them visionaries. And that they have an opportunity, nay a duty, to educate, inspire and coach us.

In marketing there are no ‘nevers’ or ‘alwayses’. There are certainly some examples of companies who have turned brand purpose into a business advantage. But, like the LeBrons and the Serenas there are very, very few of them.

Because there are no ‘nevers’ or ‘alwayses’, marketing is about likelihoods and probabilities. And the likelihood is that most consumers are shopping for good taste, comfort and functionality — not philosophy, ideology, and opinions.

When you start with ‘what does the consumer want’, you end up with good products and services. When you start with ‘what do the marketers want’, you end up with brand purpose.

Hoffman doesn’t go for Nike’s brand purpose

If you want to know if the Nike/Kaepernick advertising has been a success or a failure, the people who provide us with marketing ‘research’ and ‘data driven insights’ have fired up their algorithms, analysed their data and reached consensus. And the consensus is that they don’t have a  clue.

From the ‘Marketing Intelligence’ website, Morning Consult: “Before the announcement, Nike had a net +69 favorable impression among consumers, it has now declined 34 points to +35 favorable.”

From Edison Trends, via AdAge: “Online sales of Nike products grew 31 per cent from Sunday, Sept. 2, through Tuesday, Sept. 4.”

But online sales represent less than 6 per cent of Nike’s total revenue. So, has the Kaepernick caper helped or hurt Nike sales? Who the hell knows.

Bob Hoffman has been the CEO of two independent agencies and is the author of the Ad Contrarian blog


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