The US Betsy Ross flag. photo credit: Getty
Nike is a company that does many things right. Over the years they have made high-quality products, been powerful advocates for women in sports, cleverly expanded their business both in terms of product line and geography, and usually get it right in choosing celebrity endorsers. However, in pulling the Betsy Ross shoe that was slated for a limited introduction, Nike got it wrong this time. Really wrong from a marketing standpoint.
Here are three reasons for this why Nike’s decision on the shoe is a mistake:
- People decode symbols and communications differently, and Nike’s target audience is large and diverse. Effectively endorsing Colin Kaepernick’s view ignores the view of many others
It has been reported that the “Betsy Ross Flag” Sneaker was pulled by Nike because former NFL quarterback and spokesperson Colin Kaepernick objected to its design, arguing that the symbol is associated with slavery and has been used by extremist white nationalist groups. The problem with Nike’s rationale is that Kaepernick’s perception differs from that of a large number of Americans, including many who are in Nike’s target audience.
The basic communications model suggests that marketers try to encode messages in a way that they can be decoded in an intended manner by the receiver. The challenge, however, is that often receivers decode the message through their own frame of reference, which will vary by individual. For example, the Wall Street Journal quotes the President of the North American Vexillological Association, a group that explicitly studies flags and their symbolic meaning, as saying he has never heard of the Ross flag being linked to racism and that it is not widely used by white nationalist groups. Indeed, it is very difficult to argue that a significant number of Americans believed the Ross flag to be a symbol of racism prior to this incident. While Mr. Kaepernick is entitled to his opinion that has been formed through the prism of his experiences, so are others who see the flag differently based on their own experiences. Nike appears to be ignoring the feelings of these others.
- Surveys document that while Millennials and Generation Z see problems in U.S. society, most tend to like the flag
A study conducted by Yougov by the Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness made headlines because it found that 20% of Millennials believed that the U.S. flag was a sign of intolerance and hatred. Moreover, by slight majorities, young Americans believe U.S. society to be racist (54%) and sexist (53%). This might suggest support for Nike’s decision. However, a deeper look at the data shows otherwise, with 78% of young Americans saying they are “proud to be American” and 85% indicating that they like seeing the flag displayed on the fourth of July. These are hardly numbers that are consistent with the idea that an athletic shoe with a flag on it would be offensive to a large segment of Nike’s audience. Indeed, it is much more likely the case that pulling such a shoe because of Kaepernick’s opinion will offend a significant segment of Nike’s target audience, even among some who are generally sympathetic to Kaepernick’s views on racism.
- Nike giving Colin Kaepernick this level of authority for a shoe line not carrying his name is baffling
While the former NFL quarterback is a celebrity spokesperson whose image resonated with many young consumers in a recent ad campaign, company marketing decisions related to products that don’t carry the endorser’s name are generally not made by the endorser. While it is true that young U.S. consumers place value on corporate social responsibility and who share their values, suppressing the display of the U.S. flag is not a widely held value. In contrast to Nike’s ad campaign depicting Kaepernick as someone who has made sacrifices for things he believes in, there is not much that resonates with young consumers at large here. In fact, Nike is at high risk of fostering and being hurt by divisiveness, much as happened to the NFL and its ratings following the anthem kneeling controversy.
In general, companies should avoid alienating substantial segments of consumers in their target market by taking stands on controversial social or political issues. Nike should know this and going forward should avoid crossing over into political territory as it has done here, whether intentionally or unintentionally.