Nike Will Be Right On Kaepernick: On Short Termism and Cultural Change

Nike Will Be Right On Kaepernick: On Short Termism and Cultural Change

Every strategist, planner, and their mother has had a hot take on Nike featuring Kaepernick in its latest Just Do It campaign. Some of these takes have been scorchingly bad: the ones to pick apart and retweet shitty little companies’ shitty little stats about brand favorability being down since the spot aired, or sales climbing 31% in the week after the ad dropped.

Let’s get this out of the way from the onset: Who. Gives. A. Shit. About. Any. Of. That. Noise? Not Nike.

It should go without saying that those takes are misguided. This wasn’t a direct response campaign about sales. Nor was it about short term lift or brand effects. Come on, y’all. Be better. This was long term.

So here’s my hot take: Featuring Kaepernick was a pretty easy decision for Nike to make if you understand people and cultural change. Let’s talk about why.

We can go ahead and get out of the way that most marketing and agency types are fixated on the short term. The reasons why are plentiful: the demand for directly measurable results in constricted amounts of time (hence the rise of performance marketing, and increased focus on driving immediate sales via trackable means), shorter executive tenures, shareholder pressures, and all that jazz.

My issue on this topic though, is not with focus on immediate, measurable sales impacts. I want to focus on what I think is a misunderstanding of the impact Nike is shooting for - that it can shoot for - and how it will play out.

It’s a matter of habit; we focus in the marketing world on immediate and near term action, and either lose or never develop the ability to think (let alone act) in the longer term and more macro, system-level sense. Enter, stage left: trends. We talk about trends in the world of marketing strategy all the time. Cultural and social trends - what’s happening now, what’s hot, what’s going to happen next. There’s an entire cottage industry devoted to trends.

And I get it. There’s a time and a place for trends. When you need to make an immediate impact, you want to know what’s happening now that you can latch onto. Performance marketing and trends go together like peanut butter and jelly. But the problem is that when we learn to think in terms of trends, we don’t learn to think about the much bigger picture in the longer term. As Kanye said in one of his more lucid statements:

In this particular instance, Nike isn’t interested in following trends, or even setting trends, but in transcending them. Focus on the larger historical picture. Nike has placed its bet on what will prevail in today’s cultural and social climate. And when you zoom out from that narrow focus on trends to look at a longer time frame - to look at the trajectory of culture over time - Nike’s move feels far less risky than all the chatter makes it seem. It feels obvious.

So let’s set aside trends and short term effects for the important discussion of cultural change. It’s what many brands think they aspire to affect. To pick apart Nike’s Kaepernick play a bit more, I’ll draw on two principles of cultural change (note: I’m not talking in theoretical terms of Cultural Change and Change Management. I’m talking about people and little-c culture. How lived culture changes.). The first relates to the idea that people and culture change much more slowly than we think. The second is that culture changes cyclically, and in reference to itself.

Let’s talk briefly about culture and life. To quote one Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Sorta true for our purpose today. ‘True’ in that it applies to the things we see and think about when it comes to culture: clothes, food, music, fads, whatever lingo the youths use these days. Bet. It seems like culture changes quickly (marketing thought leaders love to spout about culture changing faster than ever now) because what we know as “culture” - these cultural trends, memes, pop culture phenomena - warp and shift quickly.

But if you dig deeper than what you see as pop culture, things change much more slowly. Get deeper, and we’re talking more about what defines things like good and bad, right and wrong. What’s acceptable and unacceptable. On the whole, these things change more slowly, are more constant, and underly what we think we see in the top layer of culture. Imagine stormy weather at sea: above sea level there may be a squall, but things are relatively calm just a dozen feet below the surface.

Go a layer even deeper, and we’re talking about the core functionalities of culture. The deep sea, if we’re keeping up the sea metaphor, where things change slowly. The basics of how to be a human. How to eat, how to move, etc. The top layer - the one that we notice, and we think to be ‘true’ - moves and changes the fastest. But the principles that underlie everything change much, much more slowly. Individual lives change, and what actions are acceptable can change, but the social and cultural principles that underlie them don’t change that much.

I’ve drawn a couple quick diagrams to roughly illustrate my points. Here’s one:

Note: I swear I’ve seen a diagram like this somewhere before but I can’t find it now. So I drew it instead.

Note: I swear I’ve seen a diagram like this somewhere before but I can’t find it now. So I drew it instead.

Nike has gone all-in on Kaepernick because they’re essentially betting on the non-right to prevail as the cultural norm, and that their beliefs and capabilities to sanction what is wrong and right will win out. History will look back on the folks who are anti-Kaep (and this is larger than Kaepernick; he’s of course become a lightning rod emblematic of much larger, more systematic issues) they bet, as assholes, or as having been assholes. In short: Nike wants in on the ground floor on a stance it believes via educated guess will win out. All they had to do was take a look at the bigger picture to make that call. Cultural change isn’t entirely unpredictable.

And this lends itself to my second principle - that culture changes in cycles, as actions and reactions to precipitous change. There’s a Steinbeck quote related to this that I like (it’s not lost on me that his former wife paints a picture of him as an asshole in her memoir):

All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die. I don’t know why we should expect it to. It seems fairly obvious that two sides of a mirror are required before one has a mirror, that two forces are necessary in man before he is man.
— John Steinbeck, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters

I’m not saying that Anti-Kaepers are evil. I’m not interested in that at this moment. My point is more that Nike is betting on history looking back at them as assholes, or on this being an asshole point of view that people will drop or soften on over time. Things change in cycles, and they change slowly. Cultural and social changes occur as reactions to other shifts in culture, technology, economics, and politics. Actions and reactions. Cue illustration #2:

The more things change, the more things stay the same - this is one of my favorite truisms. Circumstances change, but the references (filters) through which we may interpret new things have all occurred before. We as people interpret things based on what we’ve already experienced, and what we already know. Nike is betting that we’ll look back on anti-Kaepers as being assholes, and that anti-Kaepers will look back on their own views as being pretty assholey, even if they eschew blame (“Those were just the times./That was just how things were.” Tell me you haven’t heard that from your racist great grandma before.).

Looking back, where do you think today’s Nike would stand on Jim Crow and segregation? We obviously can’t say for certain, but they’ve tended to be on the right side of Americans’ collective memory of social history and athletic support (Tiger, Serena, hitting the jackpot in MJ for black cool, among others). Just Do It lends itself well to an activist, mavericky flavor - one of my favorite ads ever was Nike’s 2008 Olympic spot featuring signature athletes overcoming their particular odds, overlaid with that shitty but earwormy song from The Killers. Nike’s good at this. Maybe they’ll do the same again in another 10, 20, 30 years when there’s another strong cycle in the struggle over good and bad in culture (if proletarian, working Nike-wearers still have enough purchasing power to make it worthwhile.).

Make no mistake: Nike is out here to make money. Duh. Are they worried about sales this week, quarter, or year? I mean yeah, but not within the immediate context of this campaign…unless sales go way the hell south for an extended period of time (they won’t). This is a piece of an ongoing, multi-decades-long play within the confines of Nike’s overall Just Do It message. It’s a calculated decision to affirm cultural relevance through the next cycle of cultural change. They’re calling culture’s shot because they want to be remembered for doing so. They hope that this is a watershed moment through which subsequent brand actions and decisions will be interpreted.

We’ll see, of course. But much of the WELL ACTUALLY spouting off (like this blog!) in the marketing world could be done away if folks stepped away from short termism not just in action, but in their understanding of how culture changes. A lot of the heavy lifting is done for brands and planners if you understand people.

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Extra Credit (asides that I couldn’t figure out how to weave in to the rest of the narrative):

Aside #1: This move certainly opens the brand up to scrutiny. Nike has a less than stellar record (read: pretty shitty) on labor, particularly the exploitation of third world labor. And on environmental impact. And there’s probably other stuff that I’m forgetting. The good thing for them is that most Americans seem willing to overlook that right now. To own the Trumpers, perhaps.

Aside #2: There’s another interesting phenomenon that I’ve seen in the strategic planning Twittersphere. There have been a lot of lame centrist, gentile takes on the issue, that seem to largely come from the UK. Nothing but love to my UK planner brothers and sisters, but take a lap. This is not a time to proclaim ‘BOTH SIDES.’ There isn’t an acceptable middle ground. Learn that or be left behind. You know the Maldives? That island nation inevitably going to be sunk by rising sea levels? That’s the middle ground. Crowding onto a disappearing social position isn’t a strong long term play. Perhaps this thinking is symptomatic of left-of-center, advertisers and planners who still hope for Civility or something, for whom this might be a more extreme stance than they’re prepared to take. And perhaps that’s emblematic of a larger problem, in thinking that there’s reason and a middle ground to be had.

Aside #3: If nothing else, it puts other brands in a box and, to a degree, at the mercy of culture. Under Armour is currently the official unofficial brand of Trumpers and racists (not saying that they’re one and the same.) I’m sure they’re stoked (me being facetious, although may they won’t be displeased with a profit bump as they try to buoy slumping sales in the face of restless shareholders. This is why you drive rather than react to culture). They’re likely too afraid to move, like a T-Rex of racist signification is poised to decide if they live or die, and bite them in half. Adidas is over here speaking to #creators, waiting for this whole thing to blow over enough that it might make a similar stake-in-the-ground statement without looking like its overtly riding Nike’s coattails (it is).

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