Here's why more brands, like Nike with Colin Kaepernick, are openly liberal

  • Nike will gain a lot more than it will lose from making Colin Kaepernick the face of an ad campaign.
  • Wading into politics can still alienate customers. What’s new is it can do a lot to attract them, too.
  • Most brands’ target consumer is younger and more liberal on social issues than the average voter – so political brands will tend to be liberal.

Michael Jordan probably never actually said “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” But that apocryphal quote reflects a common sentiment for consumer product marketers: Better to stay away from political controversies so you can keep selling on both sides of the aisle.

Nike, which has drawn both praise and criticism for placing Colin Kaepernick at the center of its “Just Do It” anniversary campaign, is not following the maxim.

Its choice – along with the recent choices of other corporations to wade into political disputes, as with Delta’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods’ recent brushes with gun-rights activists – tells us something about new political incentives facing brands.

This isn’t “woke capital.” Companies are maximizing profits as they always did, but they’re responding to incentives that have shifted to encourage political participation by brands.

There is still a downside risk for brands that get political: They may alienate some of their customers. The people posting videos of themselves destroying their own bought-and-paid-for Nike sneakers may not buy new ones anytime soon.

What’s new is brands are seeing a major upside risk. As more consumers come to expect brands to reflect their moral and political values, a brand that takes a side on a controversial issue can strengthen its bond with a consumer segment, making them willing to buy more or to buy at a higher price.

But there is an asymmetry: This mostly works if you engage from the left, not the right.

Why brands are liberal now

After the Delta-NRA flap, I wrote this:

“Socially liberal segments of the public punch above their weight as potential customers (and, in some cases, as potential employees) for these companies. Think about who companies most want to advertise to: people who have a lot of disposable income and aren’t too old. This advertiser preference is why television ratings are reported in terms of adults 25 to 54 (or sometimes even 18 to 49) and it’s why networks like Bravo tout their unusually upscale viewer base to prospective advertisers. Appealing to senior citizens is a good way to win an election, but it’s not a good way to sell most consumer products and services.”

Unfortunately for conservatives, markets for consumer products are not democracies. As American politics gets more polarised by age and less polarised by income, most brands’ target customer will tend to move left relative to the country’s political median, even as the average voter sits to the right of the whole country’s political median.

For example, a poll conducted for The Washington Post in May found that 63% of respondents over age 50 thought it was “never” appropriate to protest by kneeling during the national anthem; only 38% of respondents under 30 said the same.

Younger Americans are also more ethnically diverse than older Americans, so a company trying to sell to young people is naturally selling into a much more diverse “electorate” than a political party running a national election in which the average congressional district is significantly whiter than the country as a whole.

So, think about the demographic of who’s most upset about Kaepernick’s protest movement, and then think about how much an athletic-apparel company needs to concern itself with the opinions of senior citizens, and then think about why Nike thinks this ad campaign will improve its sales.

There is also the problem that conservatives are desperately uncool.

You’d think some brands would try to get on the conservative side of big political issues – you make the conservative sneaker, I’ll make the liberal sneaker, and both of us can enjoy higher profit margins because we don’t have to compete with each other on price. Alas, the conservative shoemaker will face a coolness deficit with not-especially-political consumers, not to mention with the left-leaning creative professionals he’ll need to market the shoes in the first place.

Finally, as politics has gotten more polarised by education and urbanisation, it’s likely the most influential consumers – the “connectors” and “mavens” and “salesmen” Malcolm Gladwell writes about in “The Tipping Point” – are more disproportionately left-of-center than they used to be. This is an advantage for liberal-identified brands and a hindrance for conservative-identified ones.

That is, the “Big Sort” that has made the congressional map more difficult for Democrats is simultaneously increasing liberals’ influence in the market for consumer products and services.

One cheer for woke brands

Where politics has a very direct bearing on the bottom line – trade policy, labour policy, tax policy – you can expect Nike and other companies to prioritise those direct effects over public image, whether that means aligning with the right or the left.

So, if you’re a liberal, you shouldn’t expect Nike to be a reliable partner on every issue – and you shouldn’t be naive about how the political interests of stockholders will often diverge from those of consumers, workers, or the broad public.

But politics is about coalitions. Someone doesn’t have to be a reliable partner to be a useful one. Liberals should welcome Nike to the resistance, while critically watching its future actions.

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