Nike Stays True to Its Brand Values by Pulling the “Betsy Ross Flag” Sneaker

Nike just raised the stakes for what it means to be a culturally relevant brand.

As first reported in The Wall Street Journal, Nike is pulling from store shelves its special edition Air Max 1 USA shoes that had been created to celebrate the July 4 holiday. The shoe design incorporates the image of a U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle, commonly referred to as the Betsy Ross flag because it was created during the American Revolutionary War. But as Nike was rolling out the shoe to retailers, the company encountered a hitch: activist, former NFL quarterback, and Nike brand partner Colin Kaepernick reportedly told Nike that he considers Betsy Ross flag to be offensive because it has been co-opted by extremist groups and because it symbolizes a time when slavery flourished in the United States.

So Nike is pulling the Air Max 1 USA from stores. As a Nike spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, “Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag” (a bland statement that misses an opportunity for Nike to articulate what it believes and why).

By heeding the advice of Kaepernick, Nike is demonstrating that its relationship with the embattled former NFL quarterback goes beyond a one-time advertising campaign. In 2018, Nike made a bold move by aligning itself with Kaepernick — then embroiled in a bitter dispute with the NFL over his refusal to bend the knee during the playing of the National Anthem during football games. The company released an ad that featured Kaepernick with tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

The ad fostered a public discussion about race, the symbolism of the American Flag, and the role of the athlete in society, mostly because of Kaepernick’s visibility and name awareness. In doing so, Nike added a layer of meaning and cultural context to its famous “Just do it” tagline — a brilliant move that resulted in Nike’s sales to jump. The ad worked for a number of reasons, namely: its audience was (and remains) receptive to brand activism and Nike has taken a stand on social issues for years. By being culturally relevant, Nike connected with its customers.

Nike could have stayed in a narrowly defined lane of relying on Kaepernick to be the face of the brand with more advertisements. But Nike has now shown that Kaepernick is more than a spokesperson. He’s a counselor affecting how the business operates.

Kaepernick is not the only one to take offense with the Betsy Ross flag. In 2016, a Michigan school superintendent issued an apology after students waved the flag during a football game. The superintendent said that the flag is “a piece of history co-opted by white supremacists who see it as a symbol of a time in our nation’s history when slavery was legal.” In addition, Twitter users began speaking out against the Air Max 1 USA along with Kaepernick.

Nike read the social signals, listened to its appointed counselor, and took action. In doing so, the company has sparked a backlash and also a discussion about the history of the American flag and its appropriation in contemporary society. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has ordered the state to rescind financial incentives for Nike, and social media is exploding with criticism but also support and commentary. The ensuing conversation is likely the first time many people have learned that the Betsy Ross flag has been co-opted by modern-day extremist groups:

The long-term impact of the action remains to be seen. For now, the backlash underscores the reality that Nike is raising the stakes for what it means to be culturally relevant: by halting distribution of the Air Max 1 USA, Nike is connecting its actions to its ads.

How C2E2 Celebrates the Superfan

Chewie

Three years ago, I blogged about the first time I attended the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, then in its second year. This fan culture event was overwhelming, and it was difficult to know where to begin talking about the experience. On April 26, I experienced C2E2 from a more personal perspective: my 12-year-old daughter Marion was among the throng of attendees who dress up as their favorite fictional characters ranging from Princess Mononoke to Dr. Who. Marion was adorned in a trench coat and black wings to honor Castiel, an angel in the CW Network series Supernatural. As I noted on a LinkedIn blog post, being with Marion helped me appreciate first-hand a superfan loyalty that is rooted in self-expression and spontaneous community.

Castiel

C2E2 has quickly become a premier destination for fans and companies to gather and celebrate each other over the course of one weekend. C2E2 attracted 53,000 attendees in 2013, up from 40,000 the year before, and the event has taken up more space in the Chicago McCormick Place convention center to accommodate the growing number of merchants and entertainment properties participating.

If you opt into the C2E2 email newsletter, your experience begins well in advance of the actual event. The pedestrian-looking newsletter and website serve up a steady stream of announcements about the show, such as autograph signings (for a fee) by comic book legends such as Stan Lee, a panel with Game of Thrones cast members, or the unveiling of an interactive booth for online game League of Legends.

But you really don’t begin to understand C2E2 until you walk into McCormick Place on the day of the show and take stock of your surroundings. Even before you enter the formal C2E2 convention area, you encounter the superfans expressing their passions. Continue reading

The Art of Co-Branding

JTJDKR

On May 7, music mogul Jermaine Dupri and I were fortunate to have a byline published in Fast Company concerning four tips for successful co-branding. Co-branding  — or sharing your own brand with an outside brand — is an increasingly popular way for celebrities like Justin Timberlake and major corporations such as Budweiser to generate awareness and to promote launches of products and services. The following post contains the unabridged version of our byline in case you’d like to have a bit more context about how my employer iCrossing has successfully built a co-brand with Dupri. Our bottom line: don’t co-brand to create hype. Focus on co-creating value.

To build your brand, sometimes you have to share your brand. And increasingly, big companies like Budweiser and Harley-Davidson choosing to co-brand with celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Kid Rock through relationships that range from sponsoring each other’s activities to the celebrity taking on quasi-roles such as strategic counselor or creative director.

But for co-brands to endure beyond the superficial level of a one-off press release, both parties need to stipulate realistic goals and co-create value. Those are among the lessons iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri have learned through an unusual co-branding relationship that has helped reinvent Dupri’s image as a technology leader, increased membership for his Global 14 social media community, and developed iCrossing’s image as a creative, socially savvy agency.

After forming our relationship in February 2012, within 10 months we boosted membership for Dupri’s Global 14 community by 43 percent, improved Dupri’s Twitter following from 381,000 to 620,000, increased iCrossing’s own Twitter following by more than 40 percent, and, most importantly, gave both iCrossing and Dupri recognition among mainstream influencers.

Here’s what we’ve learned along the way.

Define Realistic Goals

A co-brand starts with an understanding of what you both want out of the relationship before you start working together. And your expectations need to be realistic. In 2011, Madonna and Smirnoff formed the Nightlife Exchange with goals of building digital reach for Smirnoff and generating business for both Madonna and Smirnoff.

SMIRNOFF MADONNA

According to Christopher Swope of Live Nation, the relationship (which featured a special global dance talent search in 2011) has helped Smirnoff achieve double-digit sales growth in key markets (with the help of a specially branded Madonna VIP Access Smirnoff Limited Edition pack) and generate 1.8 billion media impressions. The relationship also helped Madonna make her MDNA tour the highest grossing of 2012. Not bad at all.

The relationship between iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri also started with agreed upon goals and a plan to achieve them. Dupri wanted iCrossing help to drive membership for his Global 14 community, which he launched in 2011 as a platform for young entrepreneurs and musicians to share common interests with himself and each other. He was already a music legend. He also wanted to develop his reputation as a technology and business leader.

iCrossing wanted build our reputation for thought leadership, creativity and social media by tapping into the convergence of entertainment and technology.

But our goals needed to complement each other, too. Had Dupri aspired to increase his visibility among the hip-hop community, he didn’t need iCrossing’s help. But iCrossing could definitely help him drive Global 14 membership through social media and content marketing. Conversely, iCrossing needed to define goals that Dupri was in a position to help iCrossing achieve, such as increasing awareness for our own social media and thought leadership expertise.

Co-Create Value

Co-creating means co-developing products, services, and ideas. U2 and Apple ignited the flame of celebrity/corporate co-creation in 2004, when they collaborated on the launch of the iPod U2 Special Edition, housed in a special black case, and laser-engraved with the signatures of each band member on the back.

ipod-u2-special-edition-2

As part of their co-brand, Apple and U2 also made U2’s single “Vertigo” exclusively available on iTunes as well as a first-of-its kind digital box set of U2’s catalog. What made the arrangement special was that two icons were sharing their most prized assets to create specially branded products, a model that we’ve often seen emulated, a recent example being Kid Rock and Harley-Davidson agreeing to offer limited-edition, co-branded Rebel Soul merchandise featuring a line coined by Kid Rock: “I can’t hear you over the rumble of my freedom.

Co-creation is at the heart of the iCrossing/Jermaine Dupri partnership, but we’ve taken co-creating a step further by creating original content such as thought leadership about social media, audience insight, and creativity. For instance, we’ve created blog posts together on topics such as business lessons for start-ups and video interviews on creativity and social media. We published a point of view about the secrets of creating engagement on your own social community based on Dupri’s experiences with Global 14. We have also co-written a byline for Fast Company and co-presented about social media and audience intimacy at the 2012 PSFK Conference San Francisco. This thought leadership provides valuable insight to iCrossing clients and helps us meet the goals we defined.

Jermaine Dupri, David Deal: Injecting Community Back Into Social Media from Piers Fawkes on Vimeo.

By co-creating content, we are both developing a product to support our goals — akin to Justin Timberlake and Budweiser actually making a beer together. Co-created thought leadership is important because content consist of iCrossing’s product given the work we do as an agency.

iCrossing also acts as a co-publisher, relying on our own social spaces to disseminate our ideas and Dupri’s among Fortune 500 influencers — our own clients.

Find Natural Areas of Interest

A hip-hop mogul and a digital agency. The mogul runs a record label. The agency helps companies like Coca-Cola build connected brands. What do they have in common? Well, it didn’t take long to find out. Dupri loves social media and technology; so does iCrossing. Dupri hustles content ranging from his blog posts to Instagram photos. So does iCrossing. We’ve defined a credible intersection of our shared pursuits that makes sense for our brands.

Finding common passions makes for a more authentic relationship. For instance, Dodge Ram and country musician Zac Brown have successfully joined forces around a common interest: community goodwill. In 2010, Ram and Zac Brown launched the Letters for Lyrics partnership to deliver 1 million letters to U.S. soldiers, and in March Brown and Ram joined forces to put up for auction his own Ram truck in order to benefit Camp Southern Ground, which provides programs for children including those with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. The relationship is no gimmick — Ram has a history of working with country artists to support charitable causes, and Brown founded Camp Southern Ground. Theirs is a relationship centered on a true passion for both brands.

Defining common areas of interest also helps you rule out activities that don’t help us meet our goals. For instance, it does not make a whole lot of sense for iCrossing to promote Dupri’s gigs as a DJ. We are not in the music and artist promotion business. Nor will you find Dupri collaborating with iCrossing on a paid search campaign anytime soon. We’re focused only on the activities that make sense for us both.

Be Committed

One announcement does not make a relationship. A co-brand, like a garden, needs to be nurtured to grow.

Certainly Nike and Michael Jordan created the gold standard for a committed relationship between a company and a superstar individual brand. After launching their relationship in 1984, the two brands embarked on a journey that helped change the way brands and celebrities work together — and a journey that has endured highs (six NBA championships for Jordan) and unexpected turns (such as Jordan’s shocking but temporary retirement from basketball to play professional baseball). Jordan did more than collaborate with Nike on the launch of a line of shoe wear; he literally became a business partner. The Jordan Brand, a division of Nike, helps Jordan earn $80 million annually in retirement. And Nike has obviously benefitted, releasing its 28th shoe in the Jordan franchise in 2013 and commanding 58 percent of the shoe market in the United States according to SportsOneSource.

Jordan and Nike have provided a model for anyone who aspires to create a long-term relationship, including iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri. We have also stayed committed to achieving our goals for more than a year, investing our time and effort to brainstorm on ideas, adjusting our approaches when needed, and refining our messaging as Global 14 has evolved. We focused first on creating content on social media and then more actively brought event appearances into the mix, and we’ve also adapted our story to bring in fresh thinking, such as how a CEO like Jermaine Dupri can become more effective thanks to social media.

Relationships are going to experience occasional hiccups, such as the awkward moment that occurred when it was reported that Alicia Keys uses an iPhone after she signed a co-brand with Blackberry. No relationship is perfect, and you’re both going to need to be open to learning and growing together in order to succeed.

We believe that iCrossing and Jermaine Dupri are creating a model for co-branding because of our focus on creating content together. Stay tuned. We’re just getting warmed up.

“Do or Die”: tough medicine for the CMO

Marketers need to shift their focus from saying things about their brands to creating great products and experiences that will make people love their brands.

That’s what Clark Kokich believes. Clark, chairman of Razorfish, is the author of Do or Die, a new book that challenges marketers to rethink the way they build relationships with consumers. Recently he discussed with me the ethos of Do or Die, including how his simple premise — that marketers should stop saying things and start doing things — has a far-reaching impacts on the way marketers do their jobs, ranging from how they generate ideas to how they collaborate with agencies and their peers in Information Technology and Creative.

Do or Die, available exclusively on the iPad, argues that marketers just don’t have the ear of the consumer like they used to — not at a time when consumers have tools like Yelp to tell each other what they think about a brand. The book cites a Nielsen Company study that asked 25,000 Internet users from 50 countries, “Which sources of advertising do you trust most?” Nine out of 10 respondents said that they rely on friends and colleagues, and the next most popular source was consumer opinions posted online.

As Clark sees it, the problem is that too many marketers and their agency partners remain mired in an old model of sharing “one-way monologues” touting the benefits of a brand.

“Saying is great when people are listening,” he writes. “Saying is fantastic when people believe what you’re saying. But saying is a dud when consumers aren’t paying as much attention to traditional media and don’t find a one-way litany of sales points all that convincing.”

The solution: borrow a page from companies like Nike and Virgin America, which are finding imaginative ways to create immersive experiences for people to interact with their brands. For instance, while many of Virgin America’s rivals pour their marketing dollars into one-way advertising, Virgin famously builds its brand by transforming the laborious process of air travel into a fun experience.

Continue reading

The marketing genius of “Led Zeppelin IV”

Imagine if Apple unveiled the latest iPhone without a logo or if Lady Gaga had released Born This Way without her name, face, or album title on the cover.

That’s what Led Zeppelin did 40 years ago when the band issued its fourth album with a cover consisting solely of a dreary photo: an old man, hunched over with wood sticks stacked on his back — no title, band name, song listing, record label logo, or even a catalog number.

In doing so, Zeppelin committed a masterstroke of marketing brilliance that still resonates today.

The album many of us simply refer to as Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso) is the subject of an August Classic Rock cover article by Barney Hoskyns, author of Led Zeppelin IV (Rock of the Ages). His article is a worthwhile introduction (although certainly not the only one) to a work that has sold 23 million copies and is ranked among the greatest rock albums of all time by authorities ranging from Rolling Stone to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hoskyns not only documents the recording of the album and its landmark songs (“Stairway to Heaven” among them); but he and author Dave Lewis (Led Zeppelin historian and editor of Zeppelin magazine Tight but Loose) also discuss perhaps the most famous album packaging in the history of rock music – a combination of runes and puzzling artwork that inspires conversation even in a digital era that treats albums like relics.

In this post, I expand on the significance of the album design: how it complements the music of Led Zeppelin IV and influences the album’s timeless, mystical appeal. In my view, the success of Led Zeppelin IV is a lesson in creating brand mystique by not over-explaining and instead revealing a few well-chosen clues that provoke discussion.

No Title? No problem

To appreciate the impact of Led Zeppelin IV, I think it’s helpful to understand the album’s historical context. As many rock historians have reported, Led Zeppelin was at a crossroads when it released the album that would help make Zeppelin “one of the biggest bands on the planet” in Hoskyns’s words.

Continue reading

The Tiger Woods brand will be just fine

Tiger Woods might be in a world of hurt, but his brand is going to be just fine.  For a famous athlete, he has a bland, anonymous public persona.  His image is built purely on sports performance and not much else.  His self-described “transgression” has not tarnished his image because, well, he lacks one.

It would have been a different story if:

  • He had done something to tarnish his image as an athlete, like, say, smoke crack or take steroids.  Putting his health at risk would have been in greater conflict with his brand as an athlete than cheating on his wife because his entire public persona is wrapped up in his success as a golfer.
  • His behavior had alienated the middle-class Americans that corporate sponsors worry about.  But marital infidelity is too common among mainstream society to tarnish his appeal.  Contrast his situation with the scandal that resulted from Michael Vick’s involvement in illegal dog fighting.  It’s not so much the illegality of dog fighting that turned Vick into a pariah to corporate sponsors — but rather middle-class America’s perception of dog fighting as repulsive, fringe behavior.  Chances are the target demographic for Accenture (a former employer of mine) or Nike know someone personally who has had an affair.  I doubt that few, if anyone, in that demographic know someone personally involved in dog fighting.
  • He was a female athlete.  An unspoken “boys will be boys” attitude prevails when it comes to celebrities misbehaving, a standard that does not apply to women.  How marketable do you think the married Danica Patrick would be if a story broke that she was cheating on her husband, replete with saucy texts to guys and hush-hush voice mails to alleged lovers? Do you think Dara Torres, a mom and successful Olympic swimmer, could have survived a revelation about marital infidelity during the 2008 Summer Olympics?

Bottom line: Tiger Woods the brand will be just fine because Tiger Woods did nothing to hurt Tiger Woods the athlete.

Are you experienced?

Engagement-based marketing is all the rage. Forrester Research, Gartner, and JupiteResearch have all published major commentary on engagement in the past 12 months. Agencies like my employer Avenue A | Razorfish are talking about the importance of building brands through experiences that engage consumers, online and offline. David Polinchock of the Brand Experience Lab publishes a popular blog, The Experience Economist. In reality, marketers have been pursuing the holy grail of engagement since Starbucks proved that you could charge a premium rate for a cup of coffee if you provided a memorable experience (probably even before that). So why all the talk now – and why will agencies like mine continue to talk about engaging experiences? I can think of three reasons:

Continue reading

Are you experienced?

Engagement-based marketing is all the rage. Forrester Research, Gartner, and JupiteResearch have all published major commentary on engagement in the past 12 months. Agencies like my employer Avenue A | Razorfish are talking about the importance of building brands through experiences that engage consumers, online and offline. David Polinchock of the Brand Experience Lab publishes a popular blog, The Experience Economist. In reality, marketers have been pursuing the holy grail of engagement since Starbucks proved that you could charge a premium rate for a cup of coffee if you provided a memorable experience (probably even before that). So why all the talk now – and why will agencies like mine continue to talk about engaging experiences? I can think of three reasons:

Continue reading

Avenue A | Razorfish Unveils Top 10 Digital Brands

In a previous blog post, I mentioned that my Avenue A | Razorfish colleague Joe Crump was going to discuss “Digital Darwinism” at the Cannes International Advertising Festival on June 21. Today I’m making available to you his final presentation courtesy of SlideShare. Make sure you check out the top 10 digital brands, which Joe unveiled at Cannes using the Avenue A | Razorfish proprietary Brand Genes Scoreboard:

1. Google

2. Apple

3. YouTube

4. Flickr

5. Netflix

6. Nike

6. eBay

8. IKEA

9. Coca-Cola

10. Mercedes

These brands scored the highest when we measured them against atributes like immersion (how easy it is for a consumer to become engaged with your digital home), social (whether a consumer finds your brand worth sharing), and adaptive (how well a brand responds to a consumer’s digital environment), among other qualities. By contrast, the Interbrand top brands are as follows:

1. Coca-Cola

2. Mercedes

3. General Electric

4. Nokia

5. Microsoft

6. IBM

7. Disney

8. McDonald’s

9. Toyota

10. Intel

Coca-Cola and Mercedes are the only two Interbrand top brands that make the Avenue A | Razorfish top 10 list. So . . . do you agree or disagree with Avenue A | Razorfish? For more reading on Digital Darwinism, go here.

Avenue A | Razorfish Unveils Top 10 Digital Brands

In a previous blog post, I mentioned that my Avenue A | Razorfish colleague Joe Crump was going to discuss “Digital Darwinism” at the Cannes International Advertising Festival on June 21. Today I’m making available to you his final presentation courtesy of SlideShare. Make sure you check out the top 10 digital brands, which Joe unveiled at Cannes using the Avenue A | Razorfish proprietary Brand Genes Scoreboard:

1. Google

2. Apple

3. YouTube

4. Flickr

5. Netflix

6. Nike

6. eBay

8. IKEA

9. Coca-Cola

10. Mercedes

These brands scored the highest when we measured them against atributes like immersion (how easy it is for a consumer to become engaged with your digital home), social (whether a consumer finds your brand worth sharing), and adaptive (how well a brand responds to a consumer’s digital environment), among other qualities. By contrast, the Interbrand top brands are as follows:

1. Coca-Cola

2. Mercedes

3. General Electric

4. Nokia

5. Microsoft

6. IBM

7. Disney

8. McDonald’s

9. Toyota

10. Intel

Coca-Cola and Mercedes are the only two Interbrand top brands that make the Avenue A | Razorfish top 10 list. So . . . do you agree or disagree with Avenue A | Razorfish? For more reading on Digital Darwinism, go here.