In an amphitheater classroom in a Portland community college, some of the world’s best known brands have gathered to hear the wisdom of all-time brand superstar Nike. The atmosphere is heady with anticipation of the wisdom that will spill forth as the world leader in swoosh-branded things begins to speak.
Nike: I’d like to thank everyone for coming to the marketing seminar today. I think we’re going to provide lots of valuable insights to help you all supercharge your brand awareness and customer loyalty.
Scientology: You know, I’ve got a few suggestions along those lines the class might like to…
Nike: Hey, does anybody else hear that? It sounds like Leah Remini coming this way.
(Scientology dives on floor, belly crawls out of room.)
Nike: As I was saying, we at Nike have developed some cutting-edge marketing strategies to make your brands “lit,” as the kids say. For instance, what do you think is the number one priority of your customers?
Target: Plus-sized fashion models?
Gatorade: If it’s in them? Y’know, like, “it”? That thing. That they want in them.
Chick-Fil-A: Good food and friendly service at a reasonable price?
Nike: Wrong. Their number one priority is attitude. They want it, and they want to show it off. They’re excited about any brand that carries the aura of a big, bad, bold attitude.
Ed Hardy: Hells yeah!
Nike: Exactly. So, in today’s highly charged political environment, what you want is a brand that says, “defiance.” You want to be the brand that stands up to authority and never backs down. The best way to get that is to align yourself with personalities who embody the spirit of defiance
Chick-Fil-A: You mean like the founding fathers from the American Revolution?
Nike: What?! Good lord, no. Nobody even knows who those guys are. I’m talking about personalities who trigger strong emotions, who get people talking loudly and frequently about you. So, what you’re looking for in your spokesman is someone who is fighting social norms, right on the edge of acceptability. Maybe he’s even gone over the edge of acceptability and done things that some people would consider despicable.
Best Buy: But aren’t you then alienating a bunch of people from your brand? I mean, some people might think that’s cool, but then the rest of the world just despises and ridicules you. Like when Jessica turned down my World-of-Warcraft-themed prom invitation and her friends just laughed… (voice trails off)
Nike: You’ve hit upon an important point there, tubby. No matter what you do, some people will hate it and some people will think it’s cool. The question is, which is which? If you coordinate your sweater and your socks, and learn all the state capitals, who’s going to think you’re cool? Your mom and her friends, and maybe the people who work at the chicken shack over there…
Nike: … but if you make a scene and wreck stuff up, you know who’s going to think you’re cool? Cool people.
Ed Hardy: Hells yeah!
Nike: And cool people make things happen. They decide what the headlines say, and they move product. And it doesn’t matter how much the nerds and the prudes scream. All they do is make the cool people look cooler. Our strategy is about creating divisions. On one side is us, the cool people, with the attitude you want. On the other side are the chumps and the losers, the people you don’t want to be like. The greater that distinction, the better for your brand. And when people on the other side scream, they’re just helping do the work of creating that distinction for you.
So, will you alienate people? Of course. But remember, alienating the right people is the whole point. It’s the strategy that sold rock’n’roll.
Chick-Fil-A: Can I ask a question?
Nike: Shoot, chicken guy.
Chick-Fil-A: Nike has been following basically this same strategy for a long time. Andre Agassi and Charles Barkley were rule-breaking renegades for Nike back in the ’90’s. But even when Barkley said, “I am not a role model,” it was an implicit acknowledgement that there was a common culture that was good, and Barkley was just saying he was a bad representative of it. Likewise, when Agassi wouldn’t play at Wimbledon early in his career because the dress code required him to wear white instead of his neon-colored Nike gear, it was an implicit acknowledgement that rules were to be respected, and the proper response if you couldn’t follow the rules was not to participate at all. So you divided the cool rebels from the not-cool conformists, but everybody still had some level of respect for their shared culture.
Nike: (playing Fortnite on phone, mostly hiding behind things) Mm-hmm.
Chick-Fil-A: Now you have a spokesman, and an ad campaign, that says the underlying culture — the culture that your company was built on — is bad; that rejects that culture and celebrates the rejection of it. You’re abandoning the idea of any commonality whatsoever between the two sides of your “cool / not cool” divide, and it would seem that you’re abandoning the idea of doing business with anyone who falls on the wrong side of that divide.
If over the last twenty years you’ve gone from “I am not a role model” of a good culture to an explicit rejection of the culture you’re not a role model of, aren’t you following an ever-narrowing spiral of rebellion that’s going to require you to put ever greater numbers of chumps and losers in the out group? In other words, the next time you roll out a campaign like this, aren’t you going to have to be even more provocative so you can shock and offend the people who were cool with what you did last time, and thereby subdivide the former “cool” group even more? I mean, eventually, will Nike have to seek endorsements from convicted serial killers and terrorists so they can divide their remaining market between cool people who are ok with that and losers who aren’t?
Nike: (gets killed and has his sexuality questioned by a 12-year-old professional Fortnite coach in Kuala Lumpur) Um, yeah, you’ve raised some important points there, Mr. Waffle Fries, and I’m sure we’re all going to think long and hard about that. Any other questions?
Sears: (poking head in from the hallway, looking at a crumpled piece of paper) Hey there, is this the room for the marketing strategy whatayacallit?
Chick-Fil-A: You can have this seat.