The concept of brand identity has long been at the forefront of modern marketing practice. The most successful brands in today’s market differentiate themselves from competitors by clearly identifying and holding to a set of established values. A company’s ability to maintain success and customer loyalty is often defined by how well it sticks to the values set at the core of the brand’s desired identity.
We see these examples of strong brand value/message alignment play out often in practice. Patagonia has built itself up as a leading brand in the outdoor good market thanks to the company’s ongoing commitment to global sustainability efforts. On Election Day in 2020, Patagonia closed all of its stores and online operations, encouraging its employees and customers to head to the polls to vote for a substantial number of eco-friendly initiatives endorsed by Patagonia itself. All employees were offered paid-time-off on this day. This is a powerful example of brand value and message alignment.
It should not come as a surprise to see activism working its way into the brand identity of sporting lifestyle companies like Patagonia. After all, some of the biggest icons in sports have made social activism an inseparable part of their brand identity.
Naomi Osaka utilized her stage at the 2020 U.S. Open to support the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing masks bearing the names of black individuals killed by police before all of her matches. Who can forget when the entire NBA Playoffs came to a halt in the Orlando summer bubble after the shooting of a black man named Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. NBA players led the charge to demand change, utilizing their immense power as athletes to enact real reform for voting rights and feasibility ahead of that fall’s election. Athletes on some of the biggest stages in sports not backing down from integrating social activism into their identities. Such decisions represent the seriousness of the issues and injustices facing our society today.
Although the rise of social media and other cultural changes have launched both brand and athlete activism into the forefront of the conversation in sports over the past few years, these trends are far from new. Athletes using their platforms to spark social change is far from a 21st-century phenomenon. The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City was defined by one of the famous instances of athlete activism in global history, as American Track and Field Stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos rose their fists in a black power salute during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. This defining act of protest during the sprinter’s medal ceremony resulted in calls for Smith and Carlos to be suspended at the hands of the International Olympic Committee. It is amazing to see the similarities in athlete stances across the span of decades.
The examples mentioned above represent athletes who have made their names and careers synonymous with the fight for justice. This is a personal decision that often requires a great deal of sacrifice and commitment on the athlete’s behalf. With former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, we saw firsthand the consequences athletes can face for integrating calls for protest and justice into their athlete brand identities. Kaepernick has not played a snap in the NFL since he decided to start kneeling before the national anthem. Such practice is now commonplace across many sports, but Kaepernick remains without a spot on an NFL roster.
So why do I bring all these individual instances of athlete protest up? What do Colin Kaepernick and Naomi Osaka have to do with brand marketing and identity you might ask?
I bring these individual instances up to show the tricky position that brands find themselves facing in 2021. In a modern media sphere that is becoming overwhelmingly populated with calls for justice and the need to take moral stances, brands have to decide how they want to interact with these issues. It feels like companies have two choices with no right answers: stay silent and face criticism for not speaking out on an issue, or come out with a stand and run the risk of botching a statement or losing customers who don’t agree with your stance.
I am not here to tell you whether brands should or should not feel obligated to come out and make statements in support of certain social justice issues. Such instances vary significantly from a case-to-case basis depending on the brand, and it would be irresponsible to generalize and say that speaking out or not speaking out is always the right answer.
Nike provides a strong example of a brand that has had success by embracing the athlete fight for justice as an integral part of its branding and advertising. This messaging from Nike has succeeded because of its consistency and candidness. Nike does not just stand behind athletes like Kaepernick because they feel obligated to, they do it because it aligns with the brand’s overall image of being a pioneer and living with no fear. Throughout its history, the brand has used its advertisements to make powerful statements that incite change and call on people to “just do it” to fight for what they believe in. With a consistent messaging campaign like this, Nike has every right and reason to stand behind the conversations of social justice taking place in the world as we speak. Nike has a seat at the table because of its history, and because they have made social justice an integral part of its brand identity.
Although Nike has built a strong brand image for itself by aligning with several social justice initiatives, I feel that it is necessary for me to end with a warning to brands on the fence about making statements about protest or social justice: make sure your money is where your mouth is. I say this not to dissuade brands from speaking out, but just beware that if you choose to, your company must be willing and able to back your words up with tangible action and change. Solidarity is great, but it is ultimately meaningless if nothing more is offered.
If your brand is not prepared to take action on a given issue, I would recommend waiting until you have the resources to do so before trying to offer a statement of solidarity. Any brand can come out and make a simple statement of support or solidarity on social media, but it takes a true pioneer in the industry to go beyond statements and turn words into meaningful action.