Of Nike, higher order benefit and brand purpose

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I didn’t know who Colin Kaepernick was until a few days ago. Blame it on my lack of interest beyond cricket. I saw the print version on social media with the line ‘Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything’. I did not immediately connect with with Nike’s long running ‘Just Do It’ theme. Since I did not know the context, I simply saw it as a nicely crafted line. I then read up about the background and figured the contours of the creative approach. Even after reading reams of articles and opinion pieces about the controversy around the Nike ad featuring him, I may still not fully appreciate the intensity behind some of the reactions.

I then saw the Dream Crazy film and thought it is one of the most well-written TV commercials of recent times. The opinions of marketing & advertising leaders were largely positive with almost everyone praising the bold stand and the creative approach.

Some have slotted the campaign under purpose-driven advertising and even referring to Simon Sinek’s famous “People do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And then I read a few contrarian views, notably this and could see a different perspective.

Just Do It: is there a ‘right’ way?

It’s been 30 years since Nike invested in the ‘Just Do It’ idea. It is a great advertisement for advertising itself as the client-agency relationship has produced strategically sound, creatively brilliant, business-building advertising consistently across markets. The single-minded approach is commendable especially in an era when long-running thematic advertising seems to have either gone out of fashion giving away to tactical ads which ads change every year, if not season. The Nike-W+K work is also noteworthy because it has kept pace with the changing times using new media anchored on the brand idea. Chalkbot, Nike Fuelband, Breaking2 event and its promotion are examples. However, my personal favourites have always been the traditional TV spots. In my mind, the attempt is to convey that however ‘ordinary’ we are, we can push ourselves to the limit to achieve our own greatness. While there have been many great Nike advertisements which drive home this point, my all-time favourite is the ‘jogger’ ad from 2012. It showcases an obviously out-of-shape young boy determined to exercise and sweat it out through jogging. A voice over in the longer version of that commercial summarised it well:

The truth is Greatness is for all of us
This is not about lowering expectations
It’s about raising them for every last one of us
Because greatness is not in one special place
And it’s not in one special person
Greatness is wherever somebody is trying to find it

However, Nike is in a market where expensive sports celebrity endorsements and sponsorships are part of the marketing arsenal due to competitive pressure. Featuring such sports superstars in adverts creates buzz and free PR. It adds sizzle to the marketing. Many of the commercials celebrate the extraordinary performances and spectacular victories of sports superstars. Such ads are vastly different in tone and manner as compared to the ‘jogger boy’ ad – they are adrenaline pumping, extravagant, over the top epic productions. In my view both the approaches are effective in their own way and have a role to play in the larger scheme of things for Nike. The second approach brightens the halo around Nike and helps it to remain part of popular culture. Portraying sports super stars could also be seen as another way to inspire youngsters and ordinary folk – showing them their potential and possibility. It sends out a message to the viewer they could be achieve greatness like the ones portrayed. The operative word being ‘could’. There are other brands which portray sports superstars but the role of the brand in their success Is often tenuous (e.g. Rolex). Nike enjoys better credibility perhaps as a good shoe is seen as an integral part of sport.

Needless to say, not every budding athlete or an ordinary person who is fitness conscious turns out to be a sports superstar. Such successes, that too at the scale portrayed in Nike ads, are uncommon – they are one in a million, as the cliché goes. So in a way, Nike is selling a dream. There is nothing wrong in that – many brands do that. Urging someone to give their best, overcome odds and stay fit is perfectly good advice, even if it is with a commercial angle…from a brand.

The boy jogger ad works as a subtle, gentle nudge. It makes the viewer introspect and think ‘if he can do it, why can’t I?’. The high-adrenaline, war-cry like ads featuring sports stars make the viewer go ‘Whoa! I want to be like them!’.

The Colin Kaepernick ads take the second approach to another level by linking the brand to a political context – taking a stand, as it were. It is still in the ‘I want to be like my sports hero’ realm. It not surprising that it is polarising as thats’s what political affiliation does. The extreme position of ‘sacrifice everything’ and urging viewers to not just be the ‘best in the world’ (which is a rare feat) but to be the ‘best ever’ (even rarer) is selling the dream a bit too far. In my view, be the best you can, dream big and such like are reasonable goals to chase – whether mouthed by business tycoons or brands. But to suggest that its not good enough if you are not the best ever, forget the best in the world, is stretching the advertising promise a bit too far. I also thought they went a bit overboard by mocking people (if this ad was a paid ad), displaying arrogance.

Higher order benefit vs brand purpose

In marketing circles it is believed that consumers, especially millennials want a brand to stand for something (beyond just selling) and prefer brands which do so. This seems to have caused a flutter as is apparent by the surfeit of films from brands associating themselves with various causes. Some pundits say that consumers simply want good products or services and don’t really care for brand purpose and other lofty ideals. I think such a binary positions are not going to help. Yes, anchoring your marketing message on the brands, its features and benefits is important. But there is a need for the benefit to beyond basic, obvious ones and stretch it a bit.

We live in a world where brands have little or no differentiation – product parity is a given. So anchoring communication on a genuine product differentiation is tough. Also, very few categories and brands evoke high involvement from consumers. Most of our purchases are for routine, everyday needs. Brands operating in such categories (e.g. floor cleaner, ketchup) need to create some excitement in their advertising beyond just conveying basic features.

Even brands operating in high involvement categories (e.g smartphones) need to go beyond just conveying features. Even when they have a feature worth talking about it has to be projected in an interesting manner by conveying the benefit. Instead of simply listing technical specifications of its camera, Apple chose to showcase the images in its hugely successful ‘Shot on iPhone’ campaign. But not every brand is an Apple or Nike. A toothpaste, shampoo or biscuit then has to resort to a ‘stretched’ benefit – what is known as benefit laddering to endear themselves to the consumer. So it is understandable when a shampoo brand equates an ingredient to cause shine in hair and then ‘stretches’ that product benefit to say ‘helps you shine’ [in life, being the unsaid part]. They may then stretch it even further by instituting an award for women achievers who ‘shine in life’. All perfectly relatable to a consumer who know that a shampoo does not really help them do well in life and advertising is only exaggerating the claim of shiny hair – a willing suspension of disbelief. Just as everyone knows that its not the talcum powder which helps one ace an interview – the ad is merely dramatising the feeling of confidence arising out of using a beauty product.

However, there are instances where the ‘its only advertising’ filter does not apply. If a telecom brand promises ‘blazing fast speeds’ in their advertising and the actual network crawls it leads to a credibility gap. If an airline promises ‘on time every time’ or ‘a gourmet experience on board’ consumers expect them to live up to that claim. So no two categories are same. The consumer is intelligent enough to distinguish between a genuine claim and a ‘its just advertising’ one. The problem also arises when the stretched benefit is found to be incredulous, irrelevant or told in a manner which is not endearing. When a seemingly incredulous benefit is told in a self-deprecating manner the consumer accepts it.

A classic ad from Saatchi & Saatchi, Singapore from 1998
An ad dramatising the hot & spicy effect of Pringles.

Benefit laddering should not be confused with brand purpose or purpose-driven advertising. In my view, brand purpose is when a brand (usually a corporate brand) defines a lofty, higher purpose for its existence. Sometimes marketing pundits and ‘thought leaders’ could retrofit a company’s reason for existence to suit point of view. Apple had their ‘Think Different’ campaign in the 90s. But pundits say that their reason for existence is to ‘challenge the status quo and think differently’. Is that still true in 2018? In its official PR burb Apple says they ‘provide seamless experiences across all Apple devices and empower people with breakthrough services’. In that sentence, the word ‘empower’ is the closest to a lofty brand purpose. Nike says, ‘our purpose is to use the power of sport to move the world forward’. Their stated brand mission is to ‘bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world’. And it defines an athlete as ‘if you have a body you are an athlete’.

Very often such statements sound great in strategy documents and remain there, especially in the case of companies which have diverse products in their portfolio. Many years Britannia Foods revealed ‘Eat healthy, think better’ as part of their corporate identity. I really don’t know how it impacted product portfolio (does a Bourbon biscuit fit into think better?) or the communication theme across brands. Now they have evolved the brand identity and the promise of ‘Exciting Goodness’. It remains to be seen how the products & communication dovetail into this idea.

Does every brand need such a lofty brand purpose? No. Does it help to imbue a feel-good factor to the brand’s equity? In some cases, yes. Knowing that a car maker is committed to clean environment or a retail brand will take a stake firm stand against plastic helps in creating positive perceptions and can be a competitive advantage. However, as Prof Nirmalya Kumar points out, ‘authenticity is the foundation on which brand purpose is built. If brand purpose is seen as a marketing ploy it will fail’.

If defining a brand purpose has a long-term strategic intent behind it, ‘cause-advertising’ is more short term and tactical. Cause advertising is usually a campaign idea…an easy way out. That’s the reason why several brands have created web-only films associated with the causes of LGBT or societal trends like exam pressure and equality. In my book, it has a hollow, rent-a-cause feeling often disconnected with the brand. Marketers seem to believe that it creates an affinity for the brand but many such lack product connect. I cannot fathom what a fizzy, orange drink has to do with coping exam pressure or a mosquito repellent brand has to do with tough parenting. In both cases, the link was tenuous: ‘release the pressure’ as the connect to the act of opening a fizzy drink bottle and ‘tough on mosquitoes’ to ‘mothers being tough for the right reasons’ – that’s quite a stretch.

If Nike can, can I?

All brands are not equal in our world. Not every mobile phone can command the loyalty & premium of the iPhone. Not every detergent brand can create ‘Dirt is good; not every sportswear brand can create buzz like Nike. There are a combination of factors at play: the category, quality of the product, brand strategy, investments (beyond just monies) over time and the marketing message. With Dream Crazy, Nike’s ad was pretty much in line with its consistent messaging, albeit over the top; it was the strategy to use Colin Kaepernick knowing full well it will cause a storm, which was bold, risky.

Regular, every day brands which are not iconic (as yet) should not assume that such visibility and buzz comes easy or without a price to pay. The flak which Nike faced in media is not something every brand can handle or find welcome. In the long run, it is best to stick to fundamentals of making a good product or service which meets unmet or latent needs of a sizeable audience, creating a positive preference for the brand led by the product and communication experience. It is fine to exaggerate or extrapolate the brand benefit in a credible, entertaining manner. Not every brand needs a brand purpose or cause-related advertising. If investing in a higher-order brand purpose it must be relevant to the category, authentic, lived beyond just lip service and help in growing the brand.

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