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Nike Has Initiated A New Era for Politicised Brands

Photo of Georgia Meyer
by Georgia Meyer

Nike’s choice to use Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of its Just Do It slogan anniversary campaign is the latest – but as yet unmatched in scale – step in overt brand politics. The issue which Nike has just dived into, has to be one of the most profoundly personal and local – and at the same time, national-conscience defining – issues of US politics on the table today. The scale of the company coupled with the specific characteristics of the issue at hand, makes this episode unprecedented for the twenty first century.

The extent to which a commercial entity is, or is not, political is a question to which the answer inevitably changes over time, and adjusts according to the changes in popular definitions of what a political act entails.

The nature of this commercial politicisation is different to what has come before. This is not comparable to the twentieth century conservative versus liberal political construction between labour and capital. This is the beginning of the entirety of the commercial space being recalibrated to reflect the complexity and multiplicity of values that communities of consumers believe in – and commercial entities overtly claiming to represent those views in their ethos too. Cumulatively this represents a redrawing of the civic, socioeconomic and political spaces within communities – bringing with it new actors, new spokespeople, new risks and lots of unknowns.

Overtly political brands have become inevitable

The post-truth age – which has arrived at the zenith of proliferating digital content – has led to a further re-politicisation of the commercial space since advertising inventory has become fraught with issues of brand safety depending on the nature, and politics, of the content it sits beside. Brands, whether they like it or not, are now being compelled to engage politically. The notion that a brand can remain objective is becoming unrealistic in the digital landscape.

Advertising campaign content is becoming increasingly political too; companies are making bolder public statements criticising government policies, as well as pulling campaigns from placement next to content which the views of the brand are not aligned.

The irrelevance of self-interest

The extent to which Nike’s move was self-interested is secondary to recognising the increasing pressure on companies to take positions on significant social and political issues within their sphere of economic activity. Making a move as bold as this did not come without signifciant risks to its bottom line, even if in the long run Nike would have calculated that it will protect its bottom line by taking a clear position in this debate.

It will not be easy to qualify the potential gains sacrificed or gains made from this campaign. This opens up new engagement territory, with the probability of significant and incalculable second order effects having being unleashed by this strategic decision-making. An advertising campaign which would once have been considered as merely a cold financial calculation to maximise financial returns, has now decisively become  politically inflected, where the financial imperative can no longer override the political consequences.

Nike will have calculated that this campaign will resonate with a majority of its existing consumer base – but the need for the company to have a stance, one way or another, was the ignition point – and that is new.

Wisdom or morality

Leaving aside the underlying debate around the politicalisation of the actions of US professional athletes,  Nike’s move has opened up a new ethical front insofar as it enhances division – without providing the civic space required to address such division.

Nike has effectively weaponised one of the most globally recognisable logos into a symbol of support for a cause, or conversely, a target for those that disagree with one wearing that logo. These logos are visible, they are easily recognisable and they permeate every sport across age, gender and community across the United States.

If brands are now going to inevitably further escalate already sensitive political contexts – then it is imperative that they find ways to help restore collaborative spaces for community engagement too. Civic society in the digital age has become social media: unsafe, unstable unaccountable and programmed to escalate discord.

This is a new era in the politicisation of brands, the politicisation of logos and in the politicisation of consumption. It is unclear how this is going to play out.  However at this hyper-politicalised time it is worth remembering that the word politics is derived from the ancient Greek word for polis -  a term that was orginally used to describe both city and society. By re-engaging with politics, brands are re-engaging with the collective grouping of their consumers and so finding a direct way to remain relevant in an increasingly fragmented landscape.

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