//Should you use political news as a basis to market your product?

Should you use political news as a basis to market your product?

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“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

This was the bold new message that athletic-wear maker Nike Inc., delivered to the world when it introduced former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as its lead spokesperson. In doing so, the company that had turned a simple three-word tagline — Just Do It — into an advertising force of nature, reaffirmed its position as a cultural trailblazer.

As you may recall, Kaepernick was the star football player who initiated pre-game sideline anthem protests, kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner to protest police brutality against the African-American community. Kaepernick soon became kryptonite to the NFL establishment, with no team willing to sign the prime-aged quarterback, even as several franchises were desperate for help at the position.

His playing career effectively ended, Kaepernick’s new vocation as an influential activist had only just begun.

Advertising and marketing watchers — not to mention nervous investors — held their collective breath as Nike debuted the emotional new advertising campaign, one that took an overt political and social stance at a time of pronounced political and cultural polarization. Did Nike go too far? Was this brand suicide? “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts,” President Donald Trump tweeted.

Not so fast. According to a study by Thomson Reuters, Nike sold 61 per cent more merchandise than before Kaepernick’s brand-ambassadorial debut. Nike’s share price went up, and sales increased by 31 per cent in the important Labour Day weekend back-to-school buying period.

Being bold has been very beneficial to the company’s bottom line.

As small and medium-size business owners, we can take lessons from one of the world’s largest and most successful brands, but we should proceed with caution when trying to emulate their stunning ad campaigns in a quest to tap social and political zeitgeist for financial gain.

To be clear, Nike recruited Kaepernick — and set out to differentiate its brand by taking sides in the culture wars — for one reason: to sell product. But they also did so with a very clear understanding of their customer base. They want to appeal to young, progressive-thinking athletic types (or weekend warriors who try to play the part outside the office) whose pursuit of personal improvement is relentless. Or, at the very least, they want to market to customers who prefer to be aligned with a brand that shares their aspirations and values.

This is an important distinction. Taking an overt political or social stand makes a great deal of sense when your target market is comprised of individuals — Millennials, for example — who believe that what they buy is a reflection of who they are.

A recent survey by Chicago-based social media software firm Sprout Social Inc., found that 66 per cent of U.S. consumers want their preferred brands to take a strong stand on social and political issues. That finding was largely split along ideological lines. Seventy-eight per cent of self-described liberals prefer their brands to take a stand, compared with a slim majority, 52 per cent, of self-described conservatives.

In an increasingly competitive and noisy world, where standing out requires ever-more innovative marketing campaigns, sometimes committing to a cause is absolutely essential to win over your target audience. An early leader on this front was clothing retailer Benetton, whose pioneering multicultural ad campaigns affirmed the brand’s commitment to diversity many decades before doing so was de rigueur.

That brings us to the content of socially charged messaging. It must always be a reflection of your organization’s core values. In other words, it needs to be authentic. That’s why it seems to be working for Nike. Otherwise, hopping on a trendy social bandwagon is a recipe for disaster. Just ask Pepsi, whose 2017 ad featuring reality star Kendal Jenner turned into a PR nightmare as the Twitterati (and others) deemed it insensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi was forced to pull the commercial and apologize.

Politics and marketing can mix, but making it work requires a very nuanced understanding of your clientele, not to mention the right messaging

In many cases, it will make more sense for your organization to be aligned with a safe cause — raising funds for cancer research, for example, or potentially even lobbying government for change within your industry. An example: cab companies pushing back against Uber in the guise of saving driver jobs and helping them earn a decent living wage.

But if yours is a fast-growing startup in heated competition for top Millennial talent, then perhaps an aggressive move makes sense. When co-working office giant WeWork recently banned meat from its corporate meal menu, the message was clear: “Raising livestock contributes to climate change. Our company is committed to improving the environment. Therefore, meat has to go.”

Now, one could argue that taking such a stark stance could eventually backfire against WeWork, perhaps by alienating a large pool of prospective employees. The flipside to that argument is that they don’t care. The company is declaring its values and plans to stand by them.

The bottom line is that politics and marketing can mix, but making it work requires a very nuanced understanding of your clientele, not to mention the right messaging. Because for every Nike success story, there are countless other organizations who have tried, and failed, to take a stand.

• Dave Burnett is CEO of AOK Marketing, a Toronto-based firm that helps traditional offline businesses get discovered online.

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