December 8, 2021

The recent controversy over Nike’s Betsy Ross-flag sneaker surprised me. Not very long ago, it would have been pretty strange to imagine that an American flag shoe would be withdrawn from the market because of political sensitivities. Now, it’s a sign of the times.

Nike has clearly staked out a woke marketing position, trying to satisfy activist consumers who filter their buying through a political lens. On one hand, Nike has succeeded in getting a lot of publicity for the company. Some say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I am not so sure that’s true.

There are significant reasons why this kind of political marketing might be a mistake. For every consumer who gets excited about using their purchasing to support a political stance, there is probably another one who disagrees with that stance and gets turned off. Even people who don’t care about this stuff might instinctively start shying away from a brand that feels very polarizing.

Any company that wants to align with and harness public passions, as Nike is trying to do, is taking a big risk. Here’s a question I would ask myself if I were leading a consumer brand. Whose passions are likely to last longer, supportive advocates, or angry boycotters? My worry would be that those who react against a brand position will stay angry (and boycott the brand) longer than those who choose to spend extra to show their support.

This kind of marketing might work well for smaller brands that target supportive niche markets. But for big companies hoping for broad appeal, trying to stay on the right side of twitter activists might be impossible. We live in changing times, and political sentiment sometimes seems as fickle as it is heated.

Maybe these changes are an unstoppable trend in the American marketplace, and brand fragmentation is inevitable. But maybe there’s still a place for old fashioned apolitical companies that just aim to deliver good products for everybody. Time will tell, and I’m very interested to see what happens.

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