Nike Inc. has never been one to shy away from controversy — but the brand has recently gotten markedly political.
Its September decision to include polarizing ex-football player Colin Kaepernick — whose anthem-kneeling to protest racial injustice and police brutality raised public debates around patriotism and the First Amendment — in a milestone campaign is the most recent testament.
But it’s far from the only one: That same month, Nike CEO Mark Parker, writing a formal opposition to Ballot Measure 105 in the Oregon Voter’s Guide, took a public stance against the repeal of a 30-year-old Oregon law — often referred to as a “sanctuary law” — that limits the use of state and local law enforcement resources to enforce federal immigration laws.
Last year, Parker condemned President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim travel ban and in 2015, Nike’s chief stood with then-president Barack Obama in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a pact Trump would pull out of almost immediately after entering office.
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When it comes to brand identity, what Nike stands for is fairly clear: It is a progressive, often provocative marketer that staunchly supports athletes of all persuasions.
Still, a recent wave of political contributions by Nike founder Phil Knight appear to run counter to the firm’s public narrative.
Knight — who resigned from his role as Nike chairman in 2016 — this week donated another $1 million to the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Rep. Knute Buehler, bringing his total direct spending on Buehler’s campaign to $2 million, according to a filing with the Oregon Secretary of State.
What’s more, Buehler, in a July interview with conservative talk show host Lars Larson, revealed his support of Ballot Measure 105 — the very measure Nike chief Parker publicly opposed last month.
Meanwhile, data by nonprofit research group the Center for Responsive Politics showed that Nike employees and its PAC contributed $424,000 to the Republican party and its candidates in the 2018 election cycle, compared with $122,000 to the Democrats.
Dissecting any apparent dissonance between Nike’s espoused values and those of internal stakeholders is no simple task.
For one, the current climate has placed a new kind of pressure on companies to publicly take a side on political and social issues — perhaps bringing light to a potential contradiction that could have long existed.
“This is a recent change — a decade ago, it would have been taboo for a brand to speak out about political and social issues,” explained Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports at The NPD Group Inc. “Company stakeholders never really spoke about their [political and social views], and we didn’t really have the tools that we do today to [verify] what [executives] were contributing to [political candidates] and so on.”
Now, as millennials and Gen Z rise in prominence and begin to demand that brands take on social causes, these groups are perhaps forcing firms to align their public messaging with their internal and personal values.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for brands to separate themselves from the behaviors [and views] of their leadership — especially when that behavior is exposed in a really public way,” explained Deb Gabor, CEO of brand strategy consulting firm Sol Marketing. “That’s something that brands need to carefully and masterfully navigate — and be mindful of when the leaders of their organization are behaving in a way that isn’t aligned with how the brand wants to show up. In many ways, the leadership of an organization is the walking, living, breathing embodiment of the brand.”
If companies appear to miss the mark when it comes to consistency, experts say their financials could be gravely impacted.
“Millennials and Gen Z want to know the values and beliefs of the brands and retailers they do business with — and if those don’t align with their own values and beliefs, they will take their business elsewhere,” Powell said.
Although some reports have cast Knight’s contribution to Beuhler — who is running against Democratic Gov. Kate Brown — as the largest of a individual political donor in Oregon, it is worth noting that Knight has also donated to Democratic candidates in the past.
In an email exchange with FN today, a spokesperson for Nike reiterated that the brand stands behind Parker’s position on Oregon’s sanctuary law.