Nike > Everything Else
8 minute read · Issue number 13 · April 24th, 2020
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I thought you might be a bit worn about content related to Coronavirus, so today I decided to write about something interestingly different!
Last week’s edition focused on a legal issue within sports. The puzzle was: If an athlete’s contract promised a salary during the season, but there is no season (in this case because of Coronavirus), would the athlete receive such payment?
The analysis had interesting takeaways and its undoubtedly a hot topic of discussion between teams and players today. As an example, at the beginning of this week, the NBA announced that they reached an agreement with their player’s association to retain 25% of the players’ salaries. I expect to hear similar deals from more leagues around the world in the upcoming weeks.
Have you ever thought about the roles of brands in sports? How the brand value of the organization or a player may shift based on the performance inside and outside the game itself? What makes a brand anyways?
In today’s edition, we’ll navigate and analyze one of my favorite stories in the sports industry through the lens of branding theory.
What is a Brand?
A “brand” is a name or a symbol that helps an organization differentiate itself from competitors and it is important for creating value and building relationships with its consumers.
A brand will have a unique identity based on the combination of associations that will create relationships with the consumer. A brand will also position itself in the mind of the consumer, to guide consumer behavior in different situations.
Brands in the sports industry are not different from other brands as the elements of brands in sports indicate who the company is, its values, benefits, differentiation, and will aim to communicate its identity and create awareness.
Players also carry brands with their names, if you don’t believe me, ask any person in the world who is Michael Jordan. Does it make sense now? Good.
The NFL Brand
Despite having very short seasons (August-February), the NFL is considered as one of the most popular brands in the world of sports year by year.
The NFL has seen its brightest years due to increasing demand for partnerships mainly from TV broadcasters, which allowed them to easily raise prices to balance between supply and demand. This multi-billion-dollar brand keeps breaking records today.
However, according to Statista (2018), the viewership of NFL games saw a significant decline from 2015 to 2017:
There are a few incidents that may explain this decline, including negative reports from players’ accused with criminal charges, revealed damages to players’ health from concussions and brain injury, and the national anthem controversy.
Colin Kaepernick’s Brand
Colin is a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who became widely popular in the NFL preseason of 2016 when he chose to take a knee as a sign of protest during the national anthem before the beginning of the games.
His protest was based on political inequality of race, police brutality, freedom of speech, and social oppression.
He was highly criticized by the media because standing for the anthem is traditionally acknowledged in the US as an act of respect for the nation, the flag, and to honor the military.
Colin quickly became a controversial icon, a relevant brand, a leader of the African American community in the US, and worldwide.
Many players around the league followed his lead and began backing his cause by either taking a knee, raising a fist or by showing other signs of peaceful protest during the national anthem.
He became a free agent that same year and no team wanted to sign him, despite being a highly talented athlete.
From Athlete to Social Activist
During his time in the NFL, Colin was perceived as a quality player and a talented individual in the field. His statistical records and his background can prove it, as he still holds a few records in the league, and he led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012.
The moment Colin knelt; his brand shifted dramatically. Firstly, his personality and behavior adjusted his brand identity. Secondly, the moment the media gave him the attention, his brand awareness exploded.
Controversies, by definition, generate a snowball effect of attention.
Everyone was talking about Colin, even Trump contributed by providing attention.
Taking a knee publicly during the national anthem was associating negative personality traits framed by the media such as “political”, “disrespectful”, “crazy”.
Interestingly enough, but less popular, such actions inherently had positive traits such as “social activist”, “leader”, “brave”, “dream seeker”, and “confident”.
All these terms were linked to represent what Colin’s brand stood for through brand associations.
In consequence, any party taking sides with Colin would’ve been associated with the same terms. Hence, this can be the reason no team wanted to sign him after he opted out of his contract.
In September 2018, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” campaign, Nike, decided to bring its brand into the controversy after releasing a marketing campaign featuring Colin. The ad was brilliant, check it out here:
Some might argue that Nike was sacrificing everything with the ad, but Nike’s plan was accurately calculated.
From a marketing perspective, the ad was brilliant, the message contained excellent storytelling, tone, style, and emotion.
From a branding perspective, Nike was very aware of Colin’s brand equity.
Nike saw –what nobody else– in Colin’s brand personality. The traits related to standing for something, leading a movement, rooting for a change, believing in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.
It’s important to remember that both positive and negative traits will be associated with the brand, but the perspective shapes the message into what the sender meant to create.
Nike orchestrated a subtle association between Colin’s personality and Nike's brand identity by focusing only on these traits. In the campaign, Colin is featured as the voice of the ad, but there are no videos or images of his protests.
The message was clear and extremely polarizing. Some people were burning their Nike shoes and others were buying new ones as a consequence of the ad.
Regardless of the reaction of the media/consumer, Nike built more brand equity on their existent brand through the cognitive effects of associations in brand identity.
Finally, this ad allowed Nike to establish an emotional relationship with their targeted consumer, which then results in additional brand loyalty. The Nike brand won the national anthem controversy.
The power of the personality and the associations of a brand should not be underestimated, as these can create change, inspire a movement, increase or decrease revenue, or influence decision making.
From Nike, we learned that in branding, perspective is everything. Learning to identify and work with something controversial has an inherent value that most of the best marketers in the world fail to recognize. While dealing with the same person, the NFL was not able to turn the associations created by Colin as an advantage.
The NFL brand today keeps struggling to end this issue. After 3 years of controversy, and 100 years in the business, the NFL has yet to learn about branding.
What concepts can you or your company apply from this story to increase the value of your brand? Did this analysis change your perception of brands in general?
Until next week,
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