Tuesday , May 28 2024

Nike and other brands become political

This article was first published here.

We live in the age of the political consumer brand. More than ever before, big companies selling products like food and clothes see a need to each beyond profitmaking and find a purpose in politics. From racial tensions in the US to environmental issues and more, an increasing number of large companies want to be seen as political campaigning entities, rather than simply brands which flog us everyday goods.

You can see why. In the age of social media and instant communication, most of us are becoming more engaged in the hot-button political debates of the day than past generations. Many companies fear if they are absent from the public square, they will miss out on the opportunity to gain and retain younger customers who are most invested in the political issues of the day.

However, this corporate strategy is fraught with risk. In recent years, there have been countless examples of big brands trying to make a splash by making a bold political statement which ends up backfiring. It seems appearing authentically invested in politics by designing a marketing strategy in a company board room is difficult, especially because engaging in politics requires you to pick a side, and people on the other side of the debate often end up liking the brand less than before.

The 2018 campaign dubbed ‘just do it’ by sports fashion brand Nike is perhaps the most prominent recent example of a brand going political gone wrong. The campaign featured Colin Kaepernick, who previously played American football as a quarterback and had more recently ventured into political campaigning, especially civil rights activism.

Kaepernick had made news headlines around the world by kneeling during the national anthem at the beginning of football games. He aimed to make a statement on race relations issues and align himself with the Black Lives Matter movement. He had won himself a cadre of loyal supporters on the left of politics in the US, but he had also incensed many people on the other side of the debate. Either way, he had certainly made a big name for himself.1

There would be a strong case to be made for a consumer brand like Nike to remain apolitical and steer well clear of a controversial figure like Colin Kaepernick. After all, Nike wants to sell its products to all football fans – those who support Kaepernick, those who do not, and those who feel indifferent to politics and just want to enjoy the sport. But Nike decided to shun caution and go in the opposite direction, leaning into the controversy by featuring him in their marketing.2

The results were disastrous. The campaign generated a furore which arguably worsened tensions over the issue rather than improving the situation. For those who truly want to see political change, generating outrage as this campaign did is unlikely to seem helpful. Crucially, for Nike’s bottom line, the situation was not positive. Nike lost a whopping 3% of its share price immediately after launching the campaign. Their political statement came at the cost of their profits.3

A more recent case study can be found in ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, owned by Unilever. Ben & Jerry’s has made a name for itself with forthright campaigning on a wide range of political issues including immigration and the environment. In one important way, Ben & Jerry’s is different to Nike. In the case of Nike, the Colin Kaepernick campaign was a marketing ploy, aiming to help their business. But in the case of Ben & Jerry’s, there seems to be a direct conflict between business and politics.

Anuradha Mittal, who runs Ben & Jerry’s, is also a political campaigner. She runs the Oakland Institute, a think tank and pressure group. There is an overlap at the very top of the company between selling ice cream and making political statements. The result is that Mittal is eager to use Ben & Jerry’s brand to promote her key political talking points related to social justice, even if it harms the ice cream selling business.

The conflict between politics and profit at Ben & Jerry’s can be most clearly seen through its environmental campaigning. Ben & Jerry’s has criticised palm oil as an environmental villain.4 Blinded by the need to be loud on environmental issues, they ignore the evidence which shows the opposite, that using palm oil can help not hinder sustainability. Even the WWF defends palm oil, explaining that its sustainable production can benefit the planet.5

Ben & Jerry’s wanted to make deforestation the centre of one of its political campaigns, and it latched onto attacking palm oil as a vehicle for doing that. Unfortunately, they failed to notice that the trend is palm oil becoming much more sustainable, not less. In places like Malaysia, where much of the world’s palm oil is produced, deforestation has been trending lower for some time. Global Forest Watch reports a dramatic decrease in forest loss, showing that reversing deforestation is achievable.6

Several commitments, from both private companies and the government, have helped make palm oil production environmentally sustainable. For example, a whopping 83% of Malaysia’s palm oil production capacity now operates under a ‘no deforestation, peat, and exploitation’ (NDPE) commitment.7 The result is a huge plus for the natural world.

Hannah Ritchie, researcher at Our World in Data, explains in her book Not the End of the World that if every company cut palm oil out of their supply chains, as Ben & Jerry’s did as part of their campaign, there would be much more deforestation, not less. That’s because palm oil would need replacing with other oil crops, which use up more land.8 Ben & Jerry’s political campaigning lost sight of the evidence, not to mention profit.9

The result of all this campaigning by Ben & Jerry’s, perhaps inevitably, is that their owners, Unilever, have had enough. Unilever is a giant in the food industry. It has gritted its teeth and tolerated Ben & Jerry’s relentless activism for years. Now, though, it has run out of patience. Unilever has announced it is hiving off its ice cream business and is even open to a sale. For Ben & Jerry’s, the party is over.10

Nike and Ben & Jerry’s case studies showcase in dramatic fashion the risks of companies becoming political. In Nike’s case, they had a clear marketing aim, but it backfired because the campaign did not go as they expected. In Ben & Jerry’s case, they were willing to put politics above profit, so it is possible they still consider their campaigns a success, even though they have come at a huge financial cost and probably harmed the planet, too.

Either way, for those companies like Unilever, which seem uninterested in politics and just want to do their jobs selling products, the warning signs about staying away from politics are clear. Perhaps we have already passed the peak of political branding. Ben & Jerry’s downfall could become a watershed moment for brands looking to safeguard the future of their businesses.

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