Brands and politics


Brands aligning their values with progressive social causes is nothing out of the ordinary, says Geoff Payne. Just take a look at the sponsor roll call for this year’s Pride, which include the likes of Adidas, Barclays, Nandos and Tesco.

However, Nike clearly went further in working with American football star Colin Kaepernick in its recent ad campaign, actively taking sides in a heated political controversy. And it indirectly took on a US President known to be very hostile to black players’ protest during the US National Anthem, an initiative kickstarted by Kaepernick himself.

Some view Nike’s stance against racism as a bold one — after an initial outcry and fall in share price, the brand was finally rewarded by a significant sales increase. Standing by liberal principles and being on the right side of history pays off in the end.

Is this really the story? And aren’t there examples of right-wing side-taking that also work?

Closer to home, the founder of UK pub and hotel chain Wetherspoon has not only repeatedly expressed political views in actively supporting Brexit and decrying Theresa May’s Chequers plan but has also gone as far as making product changes, promising to stop stocking foreign alcohol brands, such as German beers and French champagne.

The two brands’ positions have quite a lot in common. On the surface, both seem brave and controversial. However, at second glance they are more like clever calculations, attracting attractive headline saliency, giving the brands currency and strengthening emotional bonds with core targets.

Both brand owners could count on their political side-taking being received with some enthusiasm by important audiences. Liberal-minded Millennials and black athletes as key opinion formers on the part of Nike, and lower-income British customers (almost two-thirds of C2Ds voted for Brexit, compared to 43% of ABs) on the part of Wetherspoon.

So, actually, neither move seems that risky. Those alienated by the brands’ initiatives are not the target, and any loss of business will be made up by a likely uptick in support from core clientele.

So can or should all brands be braver and take a political stance?

Not necessarily. What Nike and Wetherspoon have in common is that both are entirely consistent with their brand values and previous activities. Both Nike’s ad and Wetherspoon’s new product range re-assert existing values and bring them to life in a contemporary way. They both, in their very different ways, have integrity.

Other brands acting ‘politically’ need to be careful. They could end up treading on customers toes, or be seen to be jumping on a band wagon. Wherever you stand on either black football player protests or Brexit, you can’t accuse Nike and Wetherspoons of lacking authenticity.

Geoff Payne is a founding partner of Thinktank International Research