Speaking out without being outspoken

Despite the twists and turns that comes with actively courting contention, why do people feel so much adoration for Nike, and what makes this company, one that predominantly sells footwear, so damn popular? Is it the way they look, perhaps the way they snugly wrap around your feet, or is it something more?

Answer: It is what Nike represents.

This may be all well and good, but how does that help other companies? After all, Nike is Nike and they are not lacking in size and scope, but there is always room to adopt some of their practises and mould them to work for other organisations:

First and foremost, creating an enviable brand image does not happen overnight. It takes years of hard work actively positioning your company on social issues and not being afraid to champion contentious viewpoints. This is something that Nike does extraordinarily well as an active player on the field of social movements. And while they make their social stances a focal point of their external communications, they do so with the knowledge that they may not always be met with applause.

The most recent example of this was on display when Nike chose Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player that ‘took a knee’ during the U.S national anthem in protest against racial injustice, to promote the 30th anniversary of their ‘Just do it’ campaign. In what proved to be a divisive move, Nike took a firm position based on its beliefs as an organisation, despite the risk of losing customers and fan credibility.

By constantly questioning the status-quo, Nike has positioned itself as a progressive organisation, and in doing so, has also created more space for themselves to continue doing this in the future, as people have come to expect it, and more importantly, embrace it.

Other companies can do this as well but be forewarned. Speaking out walks a very fine line with being outspoken. Only the largest of organisations have the wriggle-room necessary to navigate public dissent. Negative media attention can swallow smaller companies, hook, line and sinker.

And sometimes, even the Goliath can risk being nicked by the hook. Within days of the now infamous image of Colin Kaepernick’s face emblazoned with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” Nike took a tremendous hit. The immediate aftermath of the campaign saw their share price drop by 3%, with videos emerging online of people cutting out the swoosh from their Nike-branded socks and burning anything Nike they could get their hands on.

Despite the very real social backlash, the close bonds that Nike had fostered with sporting heavyweights such as Serena Williams and LeBron James paid off when they stepped forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nike. Now, we cannot expect all companies to have such associations, at least not in its infancy, but there is a lesson here about the importance of building meaningful relationships with customers, stakeholders and other organisations who have strong brands themselves.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why Nike feel so comfortable speaking up. They know they have powerful figures in their corner and, given its size, they see risk as small-term pain for long-term gain. The video was posted on 5 September and by the end of the month, the share price had hit an all-time high of more than $85 a share.

But Nike wasn’t always so big, gutsy and bullet proof. They were once a much smaller company and on the receiving end of social justice campaigns that nearly buried them. Who could forget the accusations of Nike using ‘sweatshop’ labour to produce their products in the early 2000’s, or perhaps the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013? In 1995 Nike trumpeted equality for people diagnosed with HIV by showcasing an athlete that battled the disease in one of its promotional videos, which received both acclaim and demur. Despite the enormity of these issues at the time, Nike has weathered the storms by listening to its stakeholders, communicating to their customer, and making the necessary structural changes to their business.

What can only be described as a modicum of the work Nike has put into growing their brand and building one of the world’s strongest reputations. These examples can help shape the path for other organisations to follow. Now, if only the means to succeeding were as simple as sliding on a pair of magical sneakers to tackle that bumpy terrain. Perhaps tapping your heels three times and wishing might do the trick? Sorry, wrong movie.