With its instantly recognizable swoosh and slogan, Nike clearly knows a few things about marketing. Which makes it incredibly likely that the company thoroughly anticipated the controversy that would greet its latest ad featuring currently unsigned NFL player and outspoken activist Colin Kaepernick.

So why did the company go ahead with the campaign? It's almost certain it ran the numbers and saw that, despite the shoe-burning, boycott-threatening outrage on the right, the move would be good for business.

Those same numbers suggest that, depending on the demographics of your customers, your brand might want to consider doing the same, or risk increasing irrelevance.

Do customers want brands to speak out?

The first question any brand, including Nike, needs to answer before speaking out on social or political issues is whether customers want to hear from companies on these touchy topics. There is a pretty definitive answer to this question out there, and it is yes.  

"People want brands to take stands on important issues," a recent poll of 1,000 American consumers from Sprout Social found. "Two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) say it's important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues." A 2017 survey from Edelman concurs, finding that the young in particular want to hear from brands. "The majority of Millennials (60 percent) are belief-driven buyers," the poll found.

Younger, cooler, and more woke

But while a clear majority of Americans wants the brands they interact with to speak out on social issues, it's also important to note that there are significant differences among demographic groups. "Seventy-eight percent of respondents who self-identify as liberal want brands to take a stand, while just about half (52 percent) of respondents who self-identify as conservative feel the same," Sprout Social found.

The fact that liberals are a lot more interested in companies getting political no doubt made Nike's decision even easier. As sports industry analyst Matt Powell noted in a tweet (hat tip to Business Insider): "Old angry white guys are not a core demographic for Nike." The company's customers skew younger, urban, and liberal, so angering conservatives is probably only going to win Nike increased loyalty.

Not only is Nike's core audience likely to be sympathetic to Kaepernick and the causes he stands for (in a recent poll, 63 percent of those over 50 said kneeling during the national anthem is never appropriate; just 38 percent of those under 30 agreed), they're also more likely to spend on sneakers.

BI's Josh Barro neatly expresses why brands are increasingly focused on liberal customers: "Socially liberal segments of the public punch above their weight as potential customers (and, in some cases, as potential employees) for these companies. Think about who companies most want to advertise to: people who have a lot of disposable income and aren't too old ... Appealing to senior citizens is a good way to win an election, but it's not a good way to sell most consumer products and services."

The bottom line for your brand

All this boils down to a pretty clear case for Nike to risk conservative outrage by featuring Kaepernick, and it also suggests that other, smaller brands may want to consider engaging politically too.

Whether standing up for a cause is right for your brand depends, as ever, on exactly whom you're trying to appeal to, but if you're marketing to young, liberal-leaning urban dwellers, you risk getting left behind if you don't stick up for your beliefs.

(Bonus points if how you treat your workers lines up with your public activism, which is not at all always the case with Nike, but that's an issue for a whole other column -- or just read this thought-provoking take from The Nation.)

Published on: Sep 5, 2018