Nike’s new ad campaign spotlighting former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has lessons for associations—in particular, that embracing controversy can be worthwhile if you go about it thoughtfully.
Earlier this month, Nike dominated social media with its new “Dream Crazy” advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who last year drew worldwide attention for “taking a knee” during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
In a world full of polarizing figures, Kaepernick rises to the top. Some hail the former star quarterback, whose NFL contract has not been renewed this season, as a champion of human rights. Others see him as an anti-American villain.
In its new campaign, Nike casts Kaepernick as a hero, with the tagline: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.” Now the sportswear titan is garnering praise from supporters and condemnation and boycott threats from critics.
Associations often steer clear of such high-voltage controversy, but there may be times to take a different approach. Sometimes, says Adele Cehrs, founder and CEO of the marketing and PR firm Epic, you have to stand for something.
“Associations have to develop a point of view, because being neutral has no impact,” said Cehrs. “For some associations, having a point of view is just an obligation, but for those who get it, having a strong purpose can increase membership sales, awareness, and passionate brand loyalty.”
Cehrs offered a few tips for associations considering whether and how to publicly position themselves amid controversy:
Understand the issues. To be able to take a stand on an issue thoughtfully, you need to see it coming and take time to consider your options. For example, in 2016, the American Counseling Association was carefully watching what would happen with a Tennessee bill that that would allow counselors to refuse to provide services based on “strongly held principles.” When the governor signed it into law, ACA relocated its 2017 Nashville meeting to protest a policy that it said undermined its own code of professional ethics.
Know your members. Although associations can’t expect to please everyone with their policy positions, Cehrs said, they need to know where their members stand on hot-button issues. Earlier this year, members of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America informed AAFA about a controversial scene in the then-new Peter Rabbit film, and soon the association became a major voice in the national conversation about the seriousness of food-allergy bullying.
Act quickly. Associations will miss a lot of opportunities to boost their brand if they move too slowly on issues. As a litmus test, ask, “Can our association respond in not under a day, in not under 30 days, but in under an hour? That is the mark of a successful marketing team,” Cehrs said. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union’s rapid response to the travel ban announced by the Trump administration in January 2017 helped the group raise $24 million and gain more than 150,000 new members in just one weekend.
“While some associations are luring consumers with conference discounts and promotions, other organizations are tapping into the real-time cultural zeitgeist to make people pay attention,” Cehrs said. “And, it is paying off in a big way. If associations can find a cause that reflects the heart and soul of their identity and relates back to why members join and buy from them, they will win.”
Has your association ever taken a stand on a controversial issue? What lessons can you pass on to other associations? Please leave your comments below.