Justice, Risk and Heroes

If you work in marketing and advertising it’s almost impossible to read anything that doesn’t talk about brands dying, difficulty connecting to young audiences and customer backlash and loyalty right now. 

Activated by digital and social media, people are supporting their political views with their wallets. They’re pushing advertisers to reconsider media choices and shooting their $350 coolers with their guns in protest.

What a great time to be a marketer, and I’m dead serious.

While we might be a long way from “I am not a role model,” from Nike and Charles Barkley, but a brand who knows what it stands for and has the belief in itself to take a stand has limitless opportunities to find loyal fans. 

Jemele Hill wisely observed that the biggest athlete endorsement that adidas could make is to sign Colin Kaepernick. Now, of course, he’s a Nike athlete, but the statement that a serious effort to sign him would make can have tremendous effect on anyone under the age of 20. This is a generation that’s exhibited a bias toward action and loyalty, while showing an acute understanding of brands. Personally, as a brand leader, I’d love to lock up 75% of this generation for the next decade as loyal buyers because free speech is important and he’s actually out in the world doing good. 32 million teens will buy a lot more from me than 32 million NFL owners.

Let’s take another example. This month’s Atlantic has a great interview with Malcolm Jenkins.  

You’ll read an interview with an intelligent, well-spoken, stylish NFL champion. He’s everything a company looks for in an endorser, so why isn’t he signed to Russell Wilson-type endorsement deals. He deserves to make $6.5MM hawking Sprite, Nike and Beats headphones. But because he’s made a statement by raising his fist for the National Anthem, that makes him a bad risk for a brand.

But no. He’s not.

When you learn more, you see that he’s followed up his symbolism with action – action that has taken into account the voices on both sides of the argument. His position isn’t, “you’re wrong,” but “let’s make it better, because the situation isn’t right.” He should be a leading endorser because he’ll speak intelligently about your brand on and off the field, has millions of loyal fans and positions your brand positively with other professional athletes, who happen to understand that standing up for equal rights can cost them money.

For years, marketers embraced (or co-opted) counter-culture figures to sell or build loyalty. Today, we don’t have to find a counter-culture figure, but a figure who is active in culture. These are risks worth taking, because you know what to expect going in. 

I’d applaud brands making these investments instead of the ones for inherently inauthentic athletes like a Kevin Durant. While he’s a great basketball player, he’s kept his true personality and thinking hidden away, essentially making him a one-dimensional character suitable to sell performance apparel, but little else.

When these types of endorsers become three-dimensional and the hidden aspects aren’t positive, you’re left with two choices. Batten down the hatches, and wait (the Tiger Woods strategy) or dump them, which makes your brand seem impersonal, inauthentic and out of touch with a customer who is demanding more and more touch. 

I applaud the brands who look to make a statement and impact, and embrace the change, rather than run from the headlines. Yeti’s is doing that right now, trusting that a great product and strong brand can survive having a point of view.

 Malcom Jenkins is repped by CAA. I’d be picking up the phone right now to talk about his point of view and find out what he wants to do next if I worked in fashion or fitness…


NOTE: This post also appears on my pseudo-sports blog, Mr Black's Sports Page, which I'll author on the rare occasion.