The digital age has ushered in a new era of social activism and political involvement, which has greatly affected the way consumers interact with brands. When taking a stance, brands can easily become subjects in the court of public opinion. Will their stance result in crisis or will they be applauded for their good intentions?
After Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the National Anthem on August 26th, in protest of minority treatment in the United States, there was a media frenzy and the public took to social platforms to express their dissatisfaction and support of Kaepernick’s actions. Fast forward two years and Kaepernick is still in the spotlight.
Most recently, he became the face of the newest installation of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, “Dream Crazy.” In response, many customers burned merchandise in outrage and cries of boycott rang out across social media. Mayor Ben Zahn of Kenner, LA responded to the advert by imposing a ban on Nike apparel for the parks and recreation department, which was leaked on social media September 5th. Crisis ensued almost immediately, and the Mayor was blasted in a media maelstrom of national proportions.
The digital era has given everyone a platform and a voice. The omnipresence of social media creates an environment in which brands are highly visible. Mayor Zahn’s Nike ban received widespread attention which was greatly increased by social media. Every action he took following the announcement of the ban was followed closely and widely critiqued. For public figures and companies, it is important to consider the following when making divisive statements that make a significant impression on your audience/the public. Your crisis response should always prioritize:
Gauge your audience. Kenner is home to a diverse population. Many citizens were very outspoken about the memorandum and organized a protest within days. Community members and notable figures such as team members of the New Orleans Saints attended in solidarity. City council members and other local politicians also spoke out against the memorandum, sighting an infringement of basic rights. You must be cognizant of public sentiment when addressing a crisis because you want to ensure that your audience is receptive to your message.
Be aware of your timing. The backlash against Mayor Zahn’s order was immediate. The memorandum was issued on September 5 and he rescinded the order on September 12th. After the original leak, the Mayor refused to comment any further when questioned by media. The response rate to public outcry was prompt but his original messaging did not steer the conversation in a positive direction.
Formulate an appropriate response. It’s important to formulate a response that will resonate with your audience and change the conversation. Mayor Zahn initially responded by saying, “The memo speaks for itself.” This was followed by a public statement in which he defended the ban saying that taxpayer dollars would not be used to support a company that is “using their powerful voice as a political tool.” The public was not very receptive to this response. Mayor Zahn would have fared better if he had initially taken an apologetic tone as opposed to a defensive one.
Nike, on the other hand, received a significant increase in sales, 31% as of September 7th, despite this apparent backlash. Featuring Kaepernick, a controversial figure, in their most recent ad was a bold move but Nike indubitably considered their timing, messaging and brand position before making this decision, allowing them to come out ahead.
Ultimately Mayor Zahn rescinded his order on Nike apparel and products, stating “Acting upon advice of the city attorney, I have rescinded my memorandum of Sept. 5. That memorandum divided the city and placed Kenner in a false and unflattering light on the national stage.” While many are against the use of Kaepernick in the Nike ad it has yet to impact their sales/revenue negatively. This demonstrates how quickly the public is ready to react when public figures and companies take a stance on social issues. Taking a stance does pose some risk but with the right preparation, counsel and proper understanding of your target audience you can positively impact your brand.
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