Nike has taken a clear stand against racism with its new ad campaign. Marketing expert Lars Cords tells DW why companies need to interfere in the political and social debate.
DW: In its new ad campaign, Nike features the face of US football star Colin Kaepernick, who stands for the anti-racism movement in the US. How do political positions and marketing go together?
Lars Cords: The Nike commercial is a great, courageous campaign; it takes a clear stance in the US. First and foremost, however, it’s a marketing campaign which is also a risk for the company.
It is too early to tell whether sales figures will increase in the end because people approve or disapprove of it.
Of course, there are always critics who say that none of this is about the issue at hand, but merely about profit. That is the danger when companies seize on political topics for classic advertising.
We had a similar case in Germany. When he was still a member of the German national soccer team, Mesut Özil had his picture taken with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
and his sponsors Mercedes-Benz and Adidas had to quickly determine how to react to the controversy.
The pressure on the sponsors to come up with a reaction is in fact similar. Consumers have ever bigger expectations of companies, from how they treat their employees to whether they exploit labor in low-wage countries, followed by environmental issues and the use of resources.
Currently, the migration debate polarizes society. It’s become ever more important for companies to create a sense of where they stand beyond their marketing interests. That’s a new kind of pressure we haven’t seen in this dimension before.
German companies are also positioning themselves, like the supermarket chain Edeka which launched a campaign on diversity. Are companies in general more prepared to take a stand on politics and social issues?
People are increasingly realizing that not taking a stand is a position, too. They realize that sitting on the fence is less and less of an option, because things develop in the wrong direction when the company could and should have taken countermeasures — for its own economic interest, its employees, the jobs as well its room to maneuver. In principle, nationalism is always chosen over globalization and the interests of the economy.
What dangers do companies face when they enter the realm of political marketing?
From a marketing point of view, of course a company must always consider on which topics it should position itself in the first place. It should ask, how many customers will be alienated by taking that position and how many can be won over?
Even if such marketing calculation might not support a campaign in the short term, it’s time to stand tall to preserve our democracy and the social market economy, thus strengthening social solidarity once more.
Society has to make its voice heard in times of populist tendencies. And so should businesses. They, too, have to make it clear what kind of a country they want to live in, irrespective of short-term sales opportunities. Only then will we have a country in the long term in which we can live and work in peace and prosperity.
How do companies deal with the increasing pressure to take a stand?
Taking an external stand is not as significant as the question: What do the current social challenges mean for my own company? How do I handle my employees? How do I create a healthy basis for debate in my own company in order to set an example for what matters — be it equality, integration or digitalization. Only a company that is well-positioned internally has the authority to communicate its position to the outside world.
Will we be seeing more of that kind of positioning in ad campaigns in the future?
The next step would of course be strengthening that position with advertising. We’ll be seeing more campaigns that focus on diversity, and ads where the freedom of religion and intercultural life are a given. In the long run, that will contribute to influencing what society sees as normal.