Communicators, marketers and advertisers are continually being told to create ‘stories’ that resonate with their target market. They are also urged to engage with social issues and to tackle activist projects of resistance, to develop as ethical brands, to stand out from the crowd.
Most brands are quite terrified of negative stakeholder perceptions, especially when it comes to expressing controversial views. So they tread the safe path and remain the same.
Not Nike. In keeping with its Just Do it slogan and its fearless philosophy of facing sporting challenges, Nike launched its 30th Campaign by featuring brave sports celebrities in its ads.
The most recent Nike ad features the face of Colin Kaepernick, the NFL super star-turned-activist against racism and police violence, with the text “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing something.” And boy, did it cause outrage amongst critics and conservatives, #justburnit became their slogan, urging people not to support Nike, not to buy Nike sport products, to even burn the ones they had.
Just in case you missed the background story: In the USA it is common practice for players in The National Football League to stand and sing the national anthem before an important match. However, following the spate of police violence against black youths and other racial incidents in 2016, some of the NFL players decided to mark their protest by not standing with fists on hearts, but rather to bend-a-knee during the anthem. The purpose was to highlight the racial injustice in the country. President Trump weighed in, calling the players disrespectful and unpatriotic, even suggesting punishment and non-payment of player-activists.
Yes, perhaps Nike shares did drop a little initially, due to the raging debates, but within two weeks they were up again and Nike recorded 31% increase in online sales.
So Nike’s corporate activism – mixing politics with sport – has been vindicated, showing that taking a stand or doing good is good for business. A host of recent surveys and reports proves Nike’s controversial move makes total business sense. Marketing lecturer, Williams says, “Nike wants to be on the right side of history and the right side of its core consumers.” And these happen to be mainly sport enthusiasts and millennials.
A 2017 Edelman poll found “The majority of Millennials (60 percent) are belief-driven buyers,” – they want their brands to take a stand on social issues.
So companies – Just do it! Take a stand.
Global movements affecting company Reputation
Some thoughts on responsible leadership, public activism and reputation
Right now trust in mainstream media, government, business and NGOs is lower than it’s ever been. Organisations have to work extra hard at building trust, loyalty and reputation, and to avoid crises that may cause harm to their operations and reputations.
Management and Leadership changes
In the past, management would decide on its company culture, inform stakeholders and the public what it stands for and how it does its business, sometimes explicitly stated in a company’s vision and mission. Once done, the company would brand itself in terms of its culture and its products. And we, the public, would believe everything it said.
However, over time the public would rate a business on the extent to which its products and actions matched its goals. Too often public perceptions and ratings were ignored, leading to loss of reputational capital, while managers and leaders focused only on the other ‘capital’ – profitability. Today, because of the glaring evidence of crises resulting from public reaction to irresponsible leadership, organizations are being forced to act more ethically.
The public expects organisations (including government) to keep their promises. Individuals want to trust a business they deal with. Their perceptions of and attitudes towards a company must be positive before they can trust it. And business certainly needs loyal customers and stakeholders. No company can afford to ignore the reactions to their behaviours. They do so at their own peril. Managers and leaders must listen and adapt.
Social Media and Advocacy
Meanwhile globally, the rise of social media, and the grassroots engagement it affords, has contributed to the growth of people power. Companies are constantly being watched and evaluated by the man in the street who happily shares his perceptions, based on what he sees and hears in the media. These perceptions gain momentum and can lead to mass action, causing negative outcomes for the businesses concerned. There are so many examples of this, but H&M’s recent crisis over an alleged ‘racist’ advert is one. With the growth of public and employee word-of-mouth marketing, research has shown that advocacy statements by activists and ‘influencers’ on social media are far more powerful in terms of engagement and belief than content that comes directly from the brand or company.
Ethical branding is crucial as companies become aware of the importance of good corporate citizenship, responsible behaviour and transparency in all their dealings with internal and external stakeholders. More than ever before, building public trust is crucial to any business operation and its survival. Managers and leaders must ensure that the company performs well economically, ethically, legally, environmentally and socially, that is, as a corporate citizen.
The King Report, now in its 4th form, is regarded as the ‘go-to guide’ on corporate governance for large companies. Government and SMMEs too would definitely gain by consulting the document. Basically, it highlights key aspects of creating a corporate environment for the 21st century and beyond where corporate citizenship and responsible leadership are key. Only by focusing on its role in society and behaving with transparency can an organization ensure its reputation and sustainability.