The Colin Kaepernick campaign by Nike was a deliberate outcome of brilliant marketing, not a spontaneous act of boardroom courage. A skill developed by the organisation, over decades, to embrace disruption, aiding a franchise built carefully on such premises. Any cause, legal and ethical, is worthwhile for any brand to adopt as long it can positively impact the bottom lines. The courage required by management is entirely to do with customer judgement, perfected by professional experience, rather than societal empathy.
To understand the logic of this argument, one simply needs to run through a case study of Nike advertising, a key to its identity. Tiger Woods, Serena Williams and Michael Jordan have all contributed to the brand’s vehement stand towards equality, rebellious and irreverent as per the chosen DNA. Young liberal audiences are already applauding Nike for this ‘courageous’ stand, a dominant psycho-demographic profile as black culture continues to be hugely influential. Nike earned $43 million worth of free advertising in the first week, the campaign perfectly timed in the context of the rising narrative against racial inequalities in Triumph’s America. So, while the cause it espouses is undoubtedly noble, without an anticipated rise in brand stature and sales, it would not have been ink on newsprint.
While there are many global cases, including the audacious Benetton campaigns, a discussion is appropriate on the role of this strategy in Indian marketing. A traditionally conservative scenario, run by textbook professionals, for whom ruffling the socio-political status quo is usually unacceptable. An equally orthodox culture of consumer research insisting on the most amenable verdicts prior to giving any campaign a place in the sun. Truthfully, while being a glorious democracy for seven decades, our culture of ‘brand-messaging’ consumption is far from democratic, a bias towards the mainstream dictated wilfully by the dominant majority. Until very recently, we were happy to let controversy reside in the drawing rooms, if not the closet, while publicly courting convention to ensure our middle-class existences. But now, the Indian consumer is happier to view dissent than ever before, offering exciting opportunities for willing brands.
Instead of simply showing ‘soft’ solidarity post the Section 377 verdict, brands may wish to take on a more ‘real’ stance, to atone for the historical discrimination. Which can easily be an apology in the case of an organisation which exercised discriminatory practices towards LGBT employees, denying them employment or further rights of tenure. The Nirbhaya and Aarushi Talwar verdicts came and went without any brand flutter, either in empathy or condemnation, even Tata Tea retiring to the pavilions after the early years of ‘Jaago Re’. The country is currently agog on the Maoist issue, intelligent conversations by a suitable brand certain to enhance its salience amongst both naysayers and assenters. Less controversially, even universal matters like gender equality is not sufficiently adopted by brands as a genuine stand, not scams that are designed to win awards. Which, if done properly, can enhance the reputation and stature quite like Nike of 2018 and before.
So, what must Indian companies do to adopt ‘stand marketing’ as a route towards ‘smart marketing’? For starters, stop considering audiences to be serious scholars with zero-capacity for being real, far from the rapidly-emerging truth. Then recognise that with increasing levels of maturity and exposure, they are willing to embrace brands which take a stand, even if they disagree. A fine case in point being Arnab Goswami or Barkha Dutt, even the most virulent critics still the most avid viewers, constantly seeking further evidence of dis-engagement by giving more business to the brand. Also, a further benefit of appreciation given to those who show genuine vertebrae, mere conformists repeating age-old tales considered boring. In the digital age especially, when the average customer can play active narrative roles.
The finest Indian marketers must learn a lesson or two from Nike in adopting ‘stand marketing’ as a strategy to build consumer affinity. As mentioned earlier, it will require professional and not personal conviction to walk this path, disproportionate gains for brands the only objective. Just as Colin Kaepernick’s endorsement promises to elevate the swoosh to levels way beyond this year’s business projections.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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