Nike and Amazon both recently launched PR/marketing campaigns. Nike featured Colin Kaepernick in an ad -- which angered many conservatives who have complained about the former quarterback having taken a knee during the national anthem. Amazon turned a few employees into a Twitter brigade to insist that the company really was a good place to work after some negative news stories.
Nike's work was slick. Amazon's was ... less so. But both share one thing: new reports made each attempt look like cynical attempts to to boost brand image.
Nike's progressive image
Starting with Nike, there was a lot of heat among conservatives, with some taking to social media and burning their Nike-branded gear. Republican candidates have taken to the topic because tax cuts have faded in the minds of voters, according to Bloomberg.
As I mentioned at the time: "Working with Kaepernick lets the company shift its own controversy to an area where it can seem like a principled winner to many. It's very slick PR in action and good for the brand. Is the campaign of this part of a deeper conviction? Impossible to say."
Not so impossible, apparently. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzes campaign contribution filings and runs the site OpenSecrets.org, Nike has contributed three times as much to Republicans as Democrats during the 2018 election cycle, if you count the company's employees and its political action committee.
This isn't a sudden break, but the company's tendency to red over blue. The issue, of course, isn't choosing one party over another -- companies that support Democrats more heavily do exactly the same thing. But Nike was clearly trying to signal a politically progressive slant that doesn't fit with its long-standing practices.
When you're trying to promote a value as though it had a direct connection with your brand and it contradicts your practices, there's the risk of people suddenly saying that you're full of pre-processed plant fertilizer.
Not that it's hurt the company yet. In early September when the ad launched, the company's stock immediately dropped by well more than $2 a share, but now it's regained that ground and almost $3 more. Even by the beginning of the month, the amount of earned media -- attention paid -- was worth $163 million.
[Update 9/25/2018 2:20PM: A representative of Nike sent a message claiming that the act of combining PAC and individual employee contributions was an error: "Contributions from the Nike PAC are entirely separate from personal contributions made by individuals, including Mr. Knight who retired as an employee of Nike in 2006."
The Center for Responsive Politics FAQ page addresses the general criticism as follows:
Since corporations and other organizations are prohibited from making political contributions from their treasuries, one must look at the contributions from people associated with the institution to gauge its political persuasion and how it might be trying to exert influence in Washington. Also, the Federal Election Commission requires disclosure of a donor's employer and occupation if they contribute more than $200, which suggests the government is concerned about individuals' economic, or industrial, interests. We know that not every contribution is made with the donor's economic or professional interests in mind, nor do we assert that every donor considers their employer's interests when they make a contribution. But our research over more than 20 years shows enough of a correlation between individuals' contributions and their employers' political interests that we feel comfortable with our methodology. We have also observed that the donors who give more than $200, and especially those who contribute at the maximum levels, are more commonly top executives in their companies, not lower-level employees.
Furthermore, to treat Knight and his family as completely separate from Nike is unrealistic. He remains the chairman emeritus since 2016 with the right to sit in on board meetings as a non-voting member and was the second-largest shareholder in the company until Knight "sold his voting interests in Swoosh, LLC, the company he formed over a year ago to hold the majority of his shares of Nike Class A Common Stock, to a trust controlled by his son and Nike director, Travis Knight." And Phil Knight still personally owns 7.9 percent of Class A stock and 3.5 percent of Class B. Knight and his family continue to have significant ties and large influence on the company, in that sense, the interests of the individual, family, and corporation are closely tied.]
Amazon is in a similar position, except worse. The company has received bad press about conditions in its distribution centers and warehouses for years. So the company apparently repositioned some workers as "ambassadors" who would take to social media and say how wonderful a place Amazon was to work. The temp workers brought in through third-party agencies wouldn't qualify, of course, because they don't technically work for Amazon.
Have you ever noticed that companies with excellent conditions and happy employees generally don't have to deputize people to say so?
And Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has taken some serious jabs at Amazon, pointing to claims about low pay and dangerous conditions. All since CEO Jeff Bezos has become the wealthiest person in the world on the strength of his Amazon stock ownership.
And then came a news story about Amazon suddenly handing out raises of 25 to 55 cents an hour.
One worker, in San Bernardino, Calif., says the 40-cent bump to $13.15 an hour is the first raise he has received since he began working at the company four years ago. Like the other Amazon workers in this report, he spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "It wasn't enough. It wasn't enough at all," the worker said. "The HR manager in the room was like, 'Aren't you excited? Come on, clap!' We started a slow clap, with no emotions on our faces. A 3 percent raise in four years -- it feels like damage control."
By the way, the story was done by the Washington Post, a newspaper that Bezos owns.
The view from an Amazon worker after a 40-cent wage bump:-- Geoffrey A. Fowler (@geoffreyfowler) September 24, 2018
"The HR manager in the room was like, 'Aren't you excited? Come on, clap!' We started a slow clap, with no emotions on our faces. A 3 percent raise in four years -- it feels like damage control."https://t.co/jCk3tvuDtu
Ouch, it's gotta hurt.
This is another example of a company trying to quickly repair its reputation. And it doesn't generally work. Somehow, the sense of insincerity comes through.
Brand always comes out. It's how a company operates and comes from actions, not words. You can't pretend your way into the hearts of consumers.
Inconsistency in branding is a danger. It can come up today, or down the line people can bring it up and claim that you are hypocritical and inauthentic. Exactly what you don't want said about your brand.
It might work for a while. It could even do so for a few years. But eventually it will collapse. People in charge can't maintain the image indefinitely.