Two weeks in, the response to Nike's new ad campaign featuring controversial NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick continues to whiplash back and forth between adoration and rage that it's making my neck hurt. Local governments are boycotting the company's products on one hand; its stock is at a record on the other. Lost in all the hubbub is one simple fact:
Nike's leading all of us, even if we don't realize it.
Again, set aside the politics, if that's even possible today, and look at the decision to launch the Kaepernick campaign. Yes, Nike had to know that it would plant itself firmly at the center of a storm of controversy, and that's happened. The Portland shoe behemoth has also received about $200 million in free publicity--including this article--since this whole thing started.
Some people have condemned Nike for not caring about racial justice because they want to sell more shoes, to which I say, "Of course they want to sell more shoes." And they are; sales are up about 30 percent despite hordes of folks burning their Air Jordans. But my spider sense tells me there's more to it than naked commercialism.
See, Nike's been involved in the fight for racial equality for a long time. In fact, just this year they announced that the number of Nike employees who identify as non-white passed 50 percent for the first time. That's awesome. Yes, I know about the sweatshop and child labor allegations, and I'm not giving them a pass. But that's not what this particular piece is about.
Nike's action with the Kaepernick campaign is a demonstration of a core principle of leadership that gets ignored, but shouldn't:
They're starting a needed conversation and getting us to participate in it.
Leaders don't just lead when it's comfortable and everybody's getting along. Anyone can do that. They lead when nobody's getting along and what needs to be said isn't being said. That's why I believe that the motivation behind the Kaepernick campaign wasn't just commercial. I think Nike really cares about racial justice and wants to bring the conversation into the public square whether we're all ready to have it or not.
That's powerful. It positions the company as a moral leader and a provocative voice that refuses to play it safe when most companies are simply looking to offend as few people as possible. Are you ready to take on that role as a leader? Are you ready to emulate Nike, accept the risk, and possibly change the direction of your brand? Answer these three questions:
Can you achieve your goal without courting controversy?
Your motives here need to be pure. If you can get PR or increase sales by non-controversial means but you seek the headlines anyway, you're just pandering. That's transparent and people hate it.
Do you really believe in the cause?
This is basic. Don't appropriate something like the rights of Native Americans over pipeline companies if it's not in your gut. Everybody will know you're a poseur. On the other hand, if you believe in the cause and have taken the time to educate yourself in it, full speed ahead.
Is what you're advocating likely to alienate at least 50 percent of the people exposed to it?
That's good; that's you want. It means you're being provocative and hitting a nerve. You might lose a big chunk of your potential audience but you'll gain just as many intensely loyal fans. If the message or cause doesn't offend, then you're playing it too safe.