The Art of Brand Stance, by Bediz Eker

Bediz is one of our 2018 US Scholar’s and writes a monthly column in Mediacat (the best selling marketing/advertising magazine in Turkey) Here’s an article of his that was featured recently.

Last month I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the Marketing Academy’s 30 emerging marketing leaders in the US. At my first-year anniversary of jumping into the big US pond as a small fish, joining this roster of select marketing professionals from agencies, advertisers and NGOs was an honor, but above all, this was an amazing opportunity for me to grow my limited network in this new country after leaving the network of great friends and coworkers I know back in Turkey.

During the first 5 days of ‘boot camp’, we heard a spectrum of inspiring stories from the young leaders of companies steering the global marketing industry. But the one that inspired me the most (and the one I was most jealous of) was the story of the “Just Do It” tagline’s 30th year anniversary campaign with Colin Kaepernick that caused Nike and Wieden & Kennedy to make headlines last year. Most impressive was the meticulous campaign strategy that helped the brand demonstrate its stance in a highly polarized political environment.

“Believe in something”

If a reminder is needed, Colin Kaepernick was the first athlete to kneel during The U.S. National Anthem in 2016, as a protest against racial injustice. As time went on, these protests reached their pinnacle with President Donald Trump urging NFL owners to fire players who took part in these protests.

One lesser known detail of Kaepernick’s protest that I learned from my new friend at Wieden & Kennedy was that at the very beginning, Kaepernick simply sat down during the ceremony instead of standing. Nate Boyer, who is both a veteran and a former NFL player, urged him to end this protest, writing him an open letter which brought Kaepernick and Boyer together. Regardless of their differences, they discussed the subject and reached a middle ground: eventually the form of protest evolved into kneeling down during the national anthem to demonstrate both respect for the American Flag as well as anger against racial injustice.

The result however is that Kaepernick, couldn’t find an NFL team to sign him at the beginning of the 2017 season. Today his legal battle against the NFL and its owners, whom he accuses of colluding not to hire him, still goes on. In the midst of the storm, Nike picked Kaepernick as a brand ambassador for the 30th anniversary campaign of its “Just Do It” line, with the quote “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”.

“Purpose” is one of the most overused words in the marketing industry – to such an extent that it has started to lose its meaning. Besides the brands that move beyond functionality and tap into emotional benefits, we see more brands trying to differentiate themselves by moving up the benefit ladder and demonstrating ‘what they stand for’. Trend reports have also been telling us for years how consumers’ expectations of brands are higher than those of governments and municipalities.

It’s not hard to predict that brands will increasingly use their reason for being to differentiate, as Gen-Z, whose social awareness is much higher than previous generations’, grows its purchasing power. But as purpose-driven campaigns become more commonplace, we will see more heated debates especially in polarized societies like in Nike’s case.

Detailed risk analysis is a must

Claudia Edelman, who previously led the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals program, also presented at The Marketing Academy Boot Camp on defining a brand’s reason for being. During her session, we discussed how it was becoming more and more difficult for brands to take a stance according to their purpose – especially in countries that are highly polarized. In a world where people stick, blindfolded, to their beliefs without tolerance for opposing views, taking a stance for even the most innocuous causes can be risky for brands. Even talking about matters that all sides agree on can be harmful for your brand when you misjudge how to say it. Hence taking a stance on sensitive matters requires a very detailed risk analysis indeed.

The first consideration is to calculate whom you will make your enemy by making a statement. Then you have to carefully define a strategy for reacting to counter-protests, all of which will define your brand character. And if you have a very strong brand with loyal fans, they will also do everything they can to defend you passionately. In Nike’s case, protestors started to burn the brand’s products and share their videos on social media. While on the other side of the fence, the brand’s fans responded to these videos with user generated instructions on how to burn the products safely, punctuated by their own “Just Do It Safely” tagline, as if it was produced by Nike itself.

It’s my belief that brands should strive to unite societies around universal values, no matter how their campaigns evolve. For that reason, I would make the story of Kaepernick and Boyer finding the middle ground a part of this campaign narrative if I were on the team.

It is easy to stay out of trouble and attempt to differentiate your brand by tapping into generic emotional benefits. But be assured that one day a brand from your product or service category will earn a very special place in your target audience’s hearts by demonstrating its reason for being. Maybe it will antagonize some people at first, but after a detailed risk analysis and meticulously calculated moves, it will convert those consumers too. Although seemingly impossible, this will be the brand to bridge the gap in the community and unite people around universal values. And then we will take inspiration in these pages about how that brand took a stance.

The question is, can that brand be your brand?



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