Brand Opportunism Number 377: What Others Can Learn from Nike
If you’re following news from America, you’ve noticed the bushfire that sportswear brand Nike Inc has lit with its political brand campaign on the 30th anniversary of its iconic slogan ‘Just Do It.’
On 3 September, Nike unveiled its newest advertisement – a huge banner on the top of its store with the face of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, the first NFL player to take a knee during the national anthem to protest against racial injustice and inequality.
‘A Bold, Political Move’
It’s a bold, political move at a time when America is struggling to contain gun violence, racist attacks, and police brutality – especially the sporadic assaults on unarmed black men and women by law enforcement agents and the disproportional violence against protestors from the community.
Though the ad has led to one of President Donald Trump’s infamous meltdowns on Twitter, Nike’s online sales surged in the four days since the ad went live.
Kaepernick, 30, who was released by San Francisco 49ers in 2017, is currently out of work and is suing the National Football League, who he believes colluded to keep him out.
Kaepernick, in the centre of the storm, is also America’s rallying force for young players who have found expression for their hurt and anger at football games – a gesture that irks Trump so much he once called them “son of a bitch” and called on NFL to fire anyone who does not stand up during the anthem.
It’s important to understand that Nike has a diverse and young consumer base, and idiocy from racist sneaker burners aside, the political positioning of their latest social branding exercise will gain them clientele in new markets.
But profit and loss aside, it sends the powerful message to a deeply polarised White America: It’s OK to kneel for one’s basic human rights. It’s ok to dissent.
Back here, this week’s biggest news has been the long-overdue legalisation of same-sex acts between two consenting adults.
As a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court wrote history inside the courtroom, outside it, in the middle of pouring rain, the LGBTQIA community wept, hugged, kissed and waved the pride flag.
Social media was a blur of emotions and colours as users, irrespective of their sexual orientation, changed their handles to rainbow colours in solidarity with the gay community. It was a stupendous moment for everyone, except a handful of TV commentators half-heartedly trying to argue against human rights.
But interestingly, a lot of brands across the spectrum jumped on to the bandwagon and posted artwork, logos and messages in support of the scrapping of Section 377, a draconian, colonial-era law that made any forms of sex other than penile-vaginal sex between consenting adults illegal.
Brands in India Celebrating SC’s Verdict on Section 377
“Let Love Go Places,” said Yatra.com. “Proudly yours,” said Reliance. “Let’s get one thing straight. Love is love,” said Zomato that also featured a jumbo rainbow burger on its creative art. “Pride starts now,” said Ola cabs. “It’s a good day,” said, well, a Britannia Good Day biscuit ad. “A lot can happen over coffee for everyone,” said Cafe Coffee Day. The Indigo ad left a rainbow contrail with the message “about time.” “The only cancellation we looked forward to,” said Flipkart. “Ride with pride,” said Uber.
You get the message.
Brands, aware that this is a big day for India, wanted in. No harm in that, if the newfound empathy extends to all aspects of their corporate social responsibility regarding other issues as well.
Brands in India: Business Versus Freedom of Speech
In India – a huge market – brands have a dismal track record of making political statements on sensitive issues as compared to their counterparts in America. Business interests here always take precedence over human rights and freedom of speech.
The 377 verdict is the safest bet for anyone to make a political statement when an entire nation is celebrating it. It’s worth reminding those sharing ‘woke’ LGBTQIA ads, that Aamir Khan lost his Snapdeal contract for taking a stand against intolerance.
Faced with an avalanche of cyber trolls, Amazon India, whose parent brand is supposedly the champion of free speech in America, deleted Swara Bhaskar’s tweet announcing her endorsement deal with them.
Bhaskar has been consistently critical about the gang rape of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district. Remember when Airtel, at least initially, failed to defend a Muslim employee when a Hindu customer refused to speak to him because of his religion?
Where’s the courage in coming out with rainbow colours and positive social messages when you have safety in numbers? Will a brand dare to take a stand against religious bigotry, majoritarian bullying of Muslims based on their food habits, communal killings and caste atrocities? Where are the bold ads for equal pay?
Where are the ads for Dalit rights and against discrimination? Why haven’t brand launched campaigns against lynching – one of the greatest evils organised and unleashed through social media platforms? Don’t hold your breath. These are causes that will actually require sticking one’s neck out. It will risk losing government investment and alienating shareholders.
‘Where Were Ads on Section 377 Before SC’s Verdict’
The fight against Section 377 has been going on for many years now. Before 6 September, where were the sustained campaigns by popular brands for their LGBTQIA consumer base? How many brands have a clearly spelled out policy against racial discrimination, sexual harassment and homophobia?
Perhaps it’s unfair to blame brands alone for failing to step up. India has a terrible track record when it comes to protection of free speech.
While it’s safe to state on Twitter that there’s “coffee for everyone”, but a cafe will not be able to protect inter-caste or inter-faith couples against angry religious and caste groups if law enforcers are compliant with the majority.
Our police system more often than not fails to protect minority interests. Our political environment favours majoritarian muscle-flexing. Our courts are over-burdened. Our social media is overrun with vicious trolls.
It’s easy to take a risk-free moral stand. It’s difficult when you know that your skin in the game can make you lose everything. And till the day brands in India lead proactive CSR campaigns for sensitive issues irrespective of popular support, even if that means taking a opinion contrary to millions as Nike has, that’s the day I will truly believe that there’s sincerity in their rainbow DPs.
In conclusion, a tip of the hat to Amul, a brand that made the “out of the closet, out of the fridge” commercial art much before anyone else.
(The author is consulting editor, Reader's Digest & India Today magazine, and former deputy editor, HuffPost India. She tweets @MasalaBai. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)