Many expected that the appearance of Colin Kaepernick in Nike ads could bring sales down and turn the brand's slogan from "Just Do It" to "Really Did It This Time." But a new report that came out today suggests the sportswear company had a big boost, with online sales up 31 percent between the Sunday of Labor Day weekend to Tuesday. That compares to last year's 17 percent for the same period, according to Edison Trends.

Yup, really did it, and it was a hit.

Politics traditionally has been a difficult subject for companies. Recently, with increased polarization across the political spectrum, which now seems to have a great big ditch in the middle, some businesses have temporarily killed their brand, used politics for some witty self-promotion, or stretched their brands beyond breaking.

The Kaepernick-led new Nike campaign has shown that the old rule-of-thumb -- Just Don't Do It -- is, for at least the time being, dead as bygone advice to assume all women were housewives. You can't ignore politics anymore, so it's time to learn to live with it.

But you have to accept that while you could improve acceptance from one part of your customer base, the haters might also come out. Nike saw people create social media posts featuring pictures them cutting up and setting fire to swoosh-logoed products.

Avoiding sides is no longer a viable strategy with many consumers, whether acting in their personal or professional capacities. In the face of rampant tribalism, current and potential customers want to know if you're with them or against them.

In Nike's case, the company did face pushback, but the amount of positive attention it gained -- even if there were grounds to be suspicious that the brand wanted to deflect current criticism of its culture and factory working conditions -- clearly more than made up for it.

Compare that to the New Yorker's recent initial plan, quickly ditched after a Twitter-mob outrage flood included event participates who begin dropping out, to invite Steve Bannon for an on-stage interview at a festival. The reversal, scheduled so quickly that the magazine probably set a new land speed record, mollified critics but showed the brand to be weak.

Sometimes there is a backlash that ultimately doesn't matter. The Chick-fil-A boycott was largely a failure. However, a different boycott, this time of the Laura Ingraham show, drove many advertisers from the show, although the effects seemed short lasting, at least for Fox News. Companies shifted their spending to other time slots.

Striving for a Swiss-like neutrality might have worked before social media made mass protests easier to orchestrate and conduct. Now you're faced with a difficult and merciless media cycle:

  1. People online disenchanted with your brand begin mounting social media protests.
  2. Media outlets notice and decide to write about the phenomenon.
  3. Journalists frequently ignore the positive things people say to focus on the negative, or simply the more outrageous and visually arresting.
  4. More people see the coverage and join in.
  5. Suddenly, you have managers or board members or investors asking what is going on and why you can't make it stop.
  6. Anything you say at this point becomes perceived capitulation and you lose the PR game.

The only solution in the long run is to recognize that brand requires authenticity and integrity and ultimately you can't be loved by everyone. Some topics for you, your brand, and your customers, are be ones that can't be ignored. You may win some today and lose some tomorrow but be prepared to decide what it right for your company and values and be ready to stick with it.

The day may come when you can be comfortably apolitical again. But no telling when that might happen.

Published on: Sep 10, 2018