When Beyoncé took to Instagram in April to share a photo of herself sprawled across a sea of Adidas sneakers with her 130 million followers — hinting at a new partnership with the brand — the news reverberated across social media at lighting speed.
Perhaps the Beyhive — the superstar’s infamously loyal fanbase — were responsible for a fair share of the hype, while a bevy of fashion fans thirsting for the next buzzy collaboration could also lay claim to some of the noise. But for many African Americans — and women in particular, in this case — the drying of ink on a contract between a powerful global brand and a person of color remains hugely symbolic.
For underrepresented groups, these partnerships mean new levels of access and representation at some of their beloved brands, and create hope that these companies — with more influential minority voices in the room — will deliver more authentic messaging and product.
A powerful example of that theory may have emerged this week with Nike endorser and former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who, according to the Wall Street Journal, was instrumental in pushing the brand to pull back its planned release of the Air Max 1 USA. Printed at the heel of the shoe was an early design of the U.S. flag, commonly called the “Betsy Ross flag,” which was created during the American Revolution in the 1770s and represented the then-13 original colonies. Kaepernick had reportedly signaled to the brand that the flag’s symbolism is offensive to some because of its connection to an era of slavery.
While Nike confirmed its decision to nix the launch, it did not confirm the involvement of Kaepernick — who spawned a national movement against police brutality in 2016 when he started kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games. Either way, according to Matt Powell, VP and senior industry advisor for The NPD Group Inc., the brand’s decision to work with the polarizing athlete — and its recent spate of provocative cause-oriented marketing — are in line with the changing expectations of today’s consumer.
“People are demanding everybody — brands and people — stand up, and that if you see something, you say something. Silence is no longer an option,” Powell said. “Consumers really want the celebrity — whether it’s an athlete celebrity or actor — to take positions on issues at the brands they work with.”
Still, while Kaepernick has become a political figure of sorts in recent years, for many athlete and celebrity endorsers, it can be challenging to figure out if, when and how to speak out when they perceive issues with a brand’s products, messaging or internal makeup.
For instance, Under Armour athletes Stephen Curry and Misty Copeland both chose to publicly disagree with brand founder Kevin Plank in 2017 after the UA exec made what were perceived as “pro-President Donald Trump” comments.
However, when a New York Times article in May suggested that Nike had at one time reduced the payments of pregnant female runners, some may have expected Swoosh endorser Serena Williams — who stars in its female empowerment campaigns — to make a public statement bemoaning the brand’s previous maternity policy. Instead, Williams spoke out in support of the brand, reaffirming its statements that it had recently amended the policy to better support female runners.
In decades past, according to Neal Hughes, a brand strategist at Sol Marketing, the consensus among marketers and other industry stakeholders was that athletes and entertainers should not become vocal about social issues or they risk ruining brand sponsorships and alienating key audiences. Now, with the rise of social media and its ability to give birth to grassroots movements and activism, both brands and their endorsers are facing an increasing expectation from consumers that they take up causes and espouse strong beliefs and values.
Add to that untethered access to brands and celebrities via platforms like Instagram and Twitter and many users feel an increased level of human connection with companies and their partners, which in turn creates a new kind of expectation of “humanness” from both parties.
“We don’t expect athletes to just go out and play anymore; we want them to be socially conscious,” Hughes said. “For minorities, [sports] is one of the biggest platforms they can get. For an athlete to make it and not use that for any sort of social change or socially conscious voice [is not acceptable]. People would look at them and say, ‘We wasted a spot,’ or ‘They’re not using their influence.’”
Indeed, according to Crystal DeGregory, founder of HBCUStory and professor at Kentucky State University, the sports industry is particularly ripe for activism among minority super stars.
“Throughout American history, sports have been one of the frontiers that African Americans have used to demonstrate the fallacy of black inferiority,” DeGregory explained. “That’s what makes sports, sports figures and sports-affiliated products so important — they speak to the will of black people to find a way to challenge all notions of their [supposed] second-place citizenship and the American experience.”
Meanwhile for black entertainers like Beyoncé and Kanye West — both of whom have partnerships with Adidas — DeGregory said they bring to the table a long history of music as a tool to fight the status quo.
“It’s not that these people represent blackness or black people — they are often associated with representing black people’s willingness to fight for themselves and for each other,” DeGregory said. “But if you are only willing to fight for yourself and not for the rest of us, then maybe you ought not occupy the position or [possess the power] or seat at the table that you do.”
In the case of Beyoncé and West’s brand partner, Adidas has been making headlines since last November, when FN first reported on the concerns of several minorities at the firm who said the company has failed to promote and treat people of color fairly at its Portland, Ore., headquarters. A New York Times article last month revealed a new wave of allegations from minority employees against the brand. However neither of its high-profile endorsers have publicly addressed the fall out.
That’s not to say that it’s easy — or always practical — for celebrities to take on social causes or fight for changes within the companies they partner with.
“We don’t know all that Black athletes who represent these brands are fighting through and for behind closed doors and at boardroom tables,” DeGregory said. “But it is true that in representing a brand, you give up some autonomy, you give up some of your unabashed truth because — as is [the case] for each of us — when you work for people, you are responsible to and for more than yourself and your own opinions. Each of us has to count the cost and make the choice to fight for what is right. Whether or not these famous personalities are doing enough of that is subjective.”
She added: “Every single person who fights an injustice is at risk and one might argue that [celebrities] have more to lose but they also have more [to give].”