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When Should a Brand Push a Social Stand?

Nike is the latest brand to attract political controversy by featuring Colin Kaepernick in ads celebrating 20 years of its “Just Do It” slogan. But there’s an important distinction—the company did it with clear-eyed intent.

Many brands get embroiled in fractious ideological debate without sufficient forethought, like Papa John's, Lands' End, or Pepsi. Taking up a cause to attract one constituency of customers can easily alienate others, not least those who don’t care for a dose of politics with their pizza, waterproofs or trainers. But brands frequently face considerations of conscience whether they like it or not—take the obvious cases of Facebook and Twitter, now under Congressional scrutiny as insouciant engines for hate speech and foreign censorship. Volkswagen was founded by Hitler’s regime, IBM enthusiastically automated the holocaust, DuPont grew huge on explosives and chemical weapons—even trainers sport a long history of political affiliation.

The truth is, commerce and politics have always been inextricable. Now, well-informed consumers—particularly the younger ones that Nike targets—want brands that make the world a better place. A survey by Havas found 75% of consumers expect brands to make a contribution to their quality of life, but only 40% believe they do. Recent research from PR agency Weber Shandwick found that 51% of millennials said they are more likely to buy products from companies that have activist CEOs, and the 31% uptick in Nike’s sales bear that out.

We can’t all be Patagonia, and the galvanizing effect of the current US regime may not last. But the current consensus appears to be that big brands have a role to play in social justice, and can boost sales by doing so. As this think piece from Inc. magazine’s Scott Maxwell asks: Brands that get political are taking a huge risk. But are those that do nothing risking more? In this contentious age, is it time for your brand to take a stand?

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