Nike made headlines recently by removing some of its shoes from its stores. It did so because their controversial spokesperson, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, linked the flag on some of Nike’s shoes to slavery. You may remember that Kaepernick kneeled and refused to stand during the American national anthem as a protest against police brutality on blacks.
The controversy over Kaepernick and associated ads doesn't appear to have done Nike any harm. For a start, the brand got many thousands of dollars free airtime as it was discussed in the press, on the radio and on TV. Some pundits claim that the rise in Nike's stock price as a result of all this publicity added $6 billion to its value.
Nike is the sort of brand that likes to kick butt. When it does, its youngish supporters love it because it positions itself as anti-establishment and with a true and clear social conscience.
Patagonia similarly generated a huge buzz when it announced that it was suing President Trump for scaling back funds used to maintain a couple of national monuments. These national monuments are important tracts of land in Utah. Patagonia announced on its website that "the President stole your land". It went on to say that this was an illegal move that eliminated vital and protected land important in American history. All this fitted neatly with Patagonia's positioning as a marketer of outdoor clothing and gear. It may have offended some Trump supporters but overall it did well for the company. Sales increased 7% in the week of the announcement.
So, if it is possible to raise awareness and build affinities through social positioning, should we all be at it? It very much depends on your target market. Nike and Patagonia sell products that appeal to people who themselves have views on the environment and what is fair. They sell to people who proudly wear their label because the brand is making a statement. The statement is not just about a cause, it is saying "we stand for something".
It would be much more risky for a business to business brand to take a similar position. If you're making nuts and bolts or selling software, taking a strong political or social position may be seen as an eccentric predisposition of the CEO. Benetton may get away with it, but they are playing in a different game. In a recent survey of 287 CMOs from Deloitte, 80% said that they didn't think it was appropriate for their brands to take a stance on politically charged issues. B2B customers should be more concerned about their products arriving on time and as promised and avoid social issues if they can for otherwise they could easily offend a good slice of their customers.