Brands Denuded.

Brands - as we like to argue - embody inherent values that transcend the immediate and mundane value of function or utility. Brand communication attempts to convey these values to the end-user to make her investment in the brand a matter of identification beyond immediate use value. The idea is that the brand appeals to feelings and delivers affects at least in equal measure to meeting with functional needs. In the end, the phenomenon of culture is the domain to which this value-based structure of brands belong.


For these reasons, it is not surprising that organised religion is generally deemed to be the most powerful of brands. Latter-day, commercial brands, such as Porsche, Apple, Levis and Coca Cola, all invest in the same dynamics as religions. These dynamics revolve around inherent values and beliefs, basic assumptions and preferences, and these are mediated by hero figures. Rituals and practices tie it all together.


No wonder, then, that brands are also fundamentally connected to social values and politics. For years, we have thought that daily-life decisions concerning what we buy where are ultimately political decisions. Who benefits from our daily grocery shopping; what values do these people have; and what causes do they support? By way of an example, this is obviously no trivial matter since the owners of supermarket chains are usually among the richest in every Western country, from the Malwarts in the US to the Albrechts in Germany or the Sainsburys in England. This means that seemingly trivial consumer choices are concomitant to enormous economic and therefore political effects. In other words, it is no trivial matter to shop at Aldi instead of a small, local grocery shop.


Recent research has made this evident. In the 2018 Edelman Earned Brand Study, ‘Brands Take a Stand,’ it is argued that ‘consumers are putting their faith in brands to stand for something.’ The report documents the rise of consumer awareness and politics and presents the notion of ‘belief-driven purchase decisions.’ Half of us, it states, ‘choose, switch, avoid or boycott a brand based on its stand on societal issues.’ An obvious contemporary example is our expectations of environmental responsibility and sustainable industrial practices.


Recently a more acute case emerged. It concerned a ‘Just Do It’ advertisement campaign by Nike, the sport shoe and apparel manufacturer. The campaign features the American football player, Colin Kaepernick, conveying the message that one should 'believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’ A soul-stirring video with Kaepernick as the narrator also features other sport stars, like the tennis player Serena Williams, as well as handicapped athletes. The controversy is rooted in Kaepernick in 2016 initiating football players protesting racist police brutality in the USA by kneeling on the field prior to games when the national anthem is played.


Negative reactions were immediate with people leaving the games and calls for boycotting Nike. The US president brought the controversy to the forefront of media attention with his harsh disapproval of Kaepernick and other players’ protest. The protests have also been widely praised, and Kaepernick has collected a number of accolades for his initiative and actions.


Meanwhile, Kaepernick, who has had a contract with Nike since 2012, has and will presumably make several million dollars per year on being featured in the campaign. Nike, according to  Bloomberg, immediately benefitted from more than $43 million in media exposure in the wake of the controversy and will most likely gain more in the long run. Then, a few days later Bloomberg adjusted the $43 to $163 million in both negative and positive exposure while reporting that Nike’s market capitalisation was 'down $3.4 billion since the company released its latest ad campaign featuring controversial quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick.'


The issue here, however, is not that Kaepernick and Nike may benefit financially from Kaepernick and colleagues’ protests or the controversy and media attention that followed the campaign. Nike, after all, is in the business to optimise its financial gain. It is recognised for its emotive media campaigns, knows it target groups, and probably made a reasonable strategic bet that featuring Kaepernick would pay off.


Nor is the issue about whether the protest was good or bad. Nike is no saintly firm; its past corporate practices involving sweatshops and child labour re-surfaced in 2017,. Yet, its proactive stance involving Kaepernick is concomitant to owning up to undeniable political realities, and in this case Nike rightfully made its position transparent and returned the choice to its customers. This is a political choice anchored to basic values and beliefs more than a choice of a particular pair of shoes.


It is not a far-fetched proposition: Commercial brands - reflecting, propagating and capitalising on societal and human value structures - must take responsibility and be accountable for the inherent values their products and services promote in relation to relevant social and political conditions. This applies in equal measure to the global weapon industry, the companies that “merely" deliver the nuts and bolts needed to put weapons together, car manufacturers, clothing companies, food shops, and so on.


In this economy of values, brands emerge at one and the same time as the potential achilles heel of corporations and the most powerful tool to take an honourable stand and enjoy the financial rewards. Brands become the medium in which long-term, monetary gain and value creation is not immediately equivalent to serving the stock market and its stake-holders, nor a token in the barter of money and values. Brands emerge as a far more complex and nuanced system and the most valuable tool in a form of "checks and balances” where markets and politics can no longer be kept strictly separate.


As consumers gradually are becoming more and more conscious of their role in this system, and corporations, like Nike, may follow suit, it is about time the management and brand consulting industries also would heed the call. Consultancy is not neutral advisory work, something illustrated recently in a case with McKinsey & Company. As reported by New York Times, the firm - which consults some of the worlds biggest brands - has delivered 'more than $20 million in consulting work for the [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement].’ In light of the hotly debated immigration policies in the US right now, employees at the firm protested. This, writes New York Times, led to McKinsey ending its service to the immigration agency and its new managing partner releasing the following: "[McKinsey] will not, under any circumstances, engage in any work, anywhere in the world, that advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values.”


About Co-Author:
Johan Bettum is Professor at Städelschule Architecture Class, Frankfurt am Main.