Why data-driven CX prevents brands from just doing it

Nike's latest campaign featuring controversial footballer, Colin Kaepernick, has proved a win for the brand. But would Australian marketers be brave enough to follow suit?

The decision by Nike to feature controversial American footballer, Colin Kaepernick, in a campaign to celebrate the 30th anniversary of ‘Just Do It’ took what might have been a strong but potentially forgettable creative and elevated it into the global dialogue.

But would any Australian brand dare to do something similar? In an era where taking a stand on any issue risks offending large and highly vocal swathes of customers, can a brand really afford the potential blowback of standing for something?

Nike’s community standing

Kaepernick had been a controversial figure since 2016 when he chose to kneel during the playing the US national anthem in protest of racism and police shootings of unarmed African Americans.

That action sparked intense debate, which was subsequently rekindled by the Nike campaign. Many Nike fans who opposed Kaepernick’s involvement publicly posted videos of themselves burning Nike products in protest. Nike went on the fan the flames by releasing a print ad with instructions for how to burn its products safely. The company was also accused of ‘woke-washing’ by appropriating a social cause for commercial gain.

Despite the backlash – and a small initial drop in its share price - Nike chief executive, Mark Parker, described the campaign as creating record engagement and driving sales. It was mentioned in more than 1 million social media posts per day in the immediate aftermath of news of the campaign breaking on 3 September, almost double the brand’s usual volume.

According to the research company, Edison Trends, Nike went on to report a 31 per cent increase in online sales in the month following the creative’s debut.

Exactly what got the decision within Nike over the line to feature Kaepernick may never be known, but it is safe to assume the company had undertaken extensive modelling of the potential backlash and sales surge and weighed the consequences.

Research from YouGov suggests Nike customers are generally more supports of companies that take a stand on social issues than the public, and Nike customers were twice as likely to have a positive opinion of Kaepernick than a negative one.

Nike also has a history of joining social debate through its advertising, originally addressing ageism in the inaugural ‘Just Do It’ campaign in 1998 and focusing on women’s rights in athletics in 1995. In the same year, it featured HIV positive marathon runner, Ric Muñoz, in a campaign, and in 2017 featured five Middle Eastern women who were challenging stereotypes.

However, the company also has a long association with the use of sweatshops to produce footwear and clothing stretching back to the 1970s and was the subject of mass protests in 2005.

Securing authenticity

While the debate regarding Kaepernick’s actions remains divisive, the campaign has certainly achieved positive goals for the company. According to partner at boutique strategy consultancy Growth Mantra, Jess Gill, the campaign has been excellent in terms of reaffirming Nike’s values in the minds of consumers, and promoting itself within its competitive crowd.

“If you look at the trends shaping the world and things consumers are looking for, authenticity is one of those things,” she tells CMO. “We are in a pretty vanilla environment at the moment. Everything is pretty moderate. If you are a ‘good person’ you don’t want to explore things too much because you don’t want to be positioned as something that you may or may not be.

“And if you do make a stand about something that is controversial you are labelled something derogatory. And so there is a lot of reluctance to put your head up.”

While the personal blowback can be powerful, Gill says so too is the need for many brands to remain focused on shareholder value rather than customer value.

“That is probably why companies aren’t prepared to take too many risks,” she says. “Absolutely the intent is there. You can be as customer-centric as you like, but if you have to deliver a certain profit in a very short term timeframe, it is difficult to build to that promise.”

UNSW Scientia professor of marketing, John Roberts, also believes sensitivity to commercial returns may be crushing the willingness of brand owners to move into more controversial territories.

“Why would we do something with a little bit of upside and lots and lots of lots of downside?” Roberts asks. “You get rewarded for +20 per cent. You also get rewarded for +2 per cent. And you certainly get punished for -5 per cent or -10 per cent.”

Roberts argues timidity is leading brands away from making more controversial statements in the short term or building matching brand propositions in the long term. As a result, they could be missing strong potential gains.

“Any strategy has to be evaluated relative to the alternative,” Roberts says. “So if you don’t do this strategy, what do you do to keep the brand exciting and vital and contemporary? And if you do do this strategy, what do you do next?

“If you don’t say ‘we celebrate Colin Kaepernick’ what do you say? If you are careful not to stand for anything that might alienate a significant part of your market, there is a real danger that you will end up standing for nothing.”

Up next: What's great about stirring social debate, plus the balance of internal and external brand thinking

Page Break

Stirring social debate

Adam Ferrier is no stranger to stirring social debate, having been part of the team at Naked Communications behind the 2009 ‘lost jacket’ hoax campaign by fashion label, Witchery. He believes fear of what customers will say about a brand is reducing their desire to do anything that might risk that conversation being a negative one.

“Brands will always have to get a balance right between knowing what they stand for and protecting that image,” he says. “In a world where there is so much listener response available, many brands are starting to get confused about their messages and what they stand for, as they prioritise their customer ahead of what the brand stands for.

“They say they are proudly customer focused, which means they listen to the customer, and when the customer says they don’t like something they respond. And then they start to lose their way.”

Ferrier says brands with really strong brand intelligence are the ones that have a strong sense of self and understand what they stand for, and then project that confidently to the world. He believes this is true at Nike, and therefore doubts there would have been one person in the business concerned about an initial drop in share price.

“Staff knew they were being true to the brand and they have confidence in that,” Ferrier says. “And lo and behold, Nike followed up with an even stronger communication.”

Ferrier says the only way for brands to follow the Nike example is to have inherent brand intelligence. This means having all stakeholders understand what the brand stands for and having the courage to communicate that authentically. Mistakes happen when stakeholders involved with the brand don’t understand its proposition, or even more often, its tone of voice.

“Understanding what the brand stands for should be prioritised above all else,” Ferrier says. “But often with so much data available on what consumers are thinking, with so many voices available to be heard, that is working at odds with what the brand stands for. So understanding what the brand is about and the tone of voice and how that brand behaves is becoming a bigger opportunity for marketers.”

Internal versus external voice

But in the age of the customer, the external voice can be much louder than the internal one.

“As outrage culture increases, as you get immediate feedback on things, people are more likely feedback on things they don’t like rather than things they do like,” Ferrier says. “Because there is so much data available around what the customer thinks, it does have a dumbing down and homogenising effect on brands, and it almost takes the rough edges of brands. But the rough edges are often where their character is.

“Data can help identify an opportunity in the marketplace, but we are at our infancy in using data for building strong brands. We haven’t worked out the role data can play in that journey yet.”

Roberts echoes the concern brands have become internally focused, and says the mantra of ‘if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it’ may be stifling brand creativity.

“Marketing is being driven more and more away from the genius and the creativity and the imagination that made it such a special place,” he says. “In becoming more efficient in our marketing, we may have prejudiced some of our effectiveness. There is no doubt we have gained something, but I would be less adamant in arguing that it would be worth the cost.”

Roberts points to Qantas as being the standout example of a large brand taking a public stand on a divisive issue, led by its CEO, Alan Joyce, in its advocacy for same-sex marriage.

“When Alan Joyce got behind gay marriage, you could argue that he had a vested interest, but in some sense that was a pretty courageous thing to do,” Roberts says. “Qantas is the most upmarket domestic airline brand in Australia, and being socially conservative goes with wealth and status quite often.”

Gill agrees while marriage equality was an issue close to Joyce’s heart, it showed great confidence that he was willing to back something he believed in.

“A lot of CEOs don’t have the confidence they need to have to back things that are bold,” she says.

Roberts says courting controversy has also traditionally been used as strategy to gain attention by challenger brands, and has been used to great effect historically by St George Bank (prior to its acquisition by Westpac) and by Virgin.

“There are some brands that could do that, because Australia has had so many iconic brands. I think Australian brand managers have not always shown the courage,” Roberts says.

But any brand needs to tread carefully should it choose to push its campaigns into controversial waters, he cautions.

“The majority of brands that are destroyed are destroyed by the brand owner, not by the competition,” Roberts says. “While this gets people talking about important social issues, from the equity holder’s perspective, if you do the math I’m not sure the uncertainty this adds to the stock returns is justified.”

And that may be why Australian brands ultimately just won’t do it.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook:, or check us out on