Congratulations Brands. You Caught the Car. Now Run Away.

June 15, 2020

THE NINE-MINUTE MURDER of George Floyd was real and raw, and it deserved real and raw response. But when sports gear maker Nike dropped its Just Don’t Do It video I had to wonder if the counter-intuitive spot was more about self-interest than public service.

By most standards the message was pitch-perfect, but its speed of delivery and creative polish seemed somehow flat. While mainstream and marketing media echoed Nike’s socially woke soundbites, social media knew better. “For once can humanity be more important than branding for major corporations?” tweeted one cynic.

Like the idiom of the dog that chases and catches the car, Nike has bit into something far larger than it can handle. The trademark swoosh is no longer a brand of choice for the black community; it’s competing for pastor, social worker, father, mother, friend, mentor, teacher and coach. Consider the video’s text: “For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us.”

In a neighboring sphere of influence – this one aimed at women – Unilever has crafted its Dove soap brand into a self-esteem curative and more recently as a champion against hair discrimination. Here’s its stated purpose: “At Dove, we believe no young person should be held back from reaching their full potential…low body confidence and anxieties over appearance keep young people from being their best selves, affecting their health, friendships, and even performance at school.”

It’s hard to reject such sentiments and it’s impossible to argue that brands like Nike and Dove don’t put a check on racist and sexist norms. Except that they are inanimate and harbor a profit motive that is not shared by their targets. In other words, there’s a catch.

Brands are approaching their own George Floyd moment – a cultural awakening that will reject their meddling and impersonations of the people and institutions that actually matter.

Other brands are making similar overtures but with less authenticity or strategic savvy. Bank of America’s $1 billion commitment to distressed communities will benefit the distressed in the short term but over time those costs will be passed back to its customers—distressed, privileged and otherwise. Another example of misdirected charity might be Lyft’s offer of $500,000 of credits to civil rights groups. While the ride-sharing darling hopes to build goodwill its handout fails to accrue to the company’s real competitive advantages of safety, service and ethics.

Is this newsmaking or newsjacking? Whatever the answer, influence professionals have yet to be slowed. Moving up from treacly videos and cash prizes, they’ll try for more. And why not? Sneakers are saviors of #BlackLivesMatter and soap is a #MeToo champion.

Up to this point, the work of the $500 billion influence industry has been innocent enough. But for the likes of Nike and Unilever the constituencies they’ve cozied to are in trouble. People of color and women desperately require equal protections, rights and recognitions to advance. Who then will blame them for looking the other way when classroom chairs bear the Nike swoosh or public wash rooms sport the Dove logo? Could the day come when one of these brands is named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year? Could another humbly accept the Nobel Peace Prize? I wonder.


For more than a half-century professionalized persuaders have plotted their way to society’s affections, and with little resistance. From Edward Bernays’ torches of freedom, which tricked women to take up smoking, to Arthur Page’s captaincy of the suffocating AT&T monopoly, the targets of industrial propaganda have not only indulged but celebrated these ostensible good intentions.

No more. It’s time for brands to chase a new car because consumers, employees and activists alike are learning that sneakers and soap are distractions and exploitations in the serious matters of race, gender and culture wars. They’re false idols.

My advice to the influence industry, particularly Nike and Dove, is to just shut up. Compete on merit not faux morals. Return to what you actually do: Make stuff that works, works well and is better than Adidas or Under Armour, Irish Spring or L’Occitane. Yes, you’ll hate this because your brilliance is in your branding, not your minimally differentiated athletic wear and beauty products. But you should be smart enough to know that it’s time to stop spinning. You’re approaching your own George Floyd moment – a cultural awakening that will reject your meddling and impersonations of the people and institutions that actually matter.

Diversity, equal protection and environmental reclamation are all things our great American brands can and should embody, but not advertise. Let’s embrace equality, demonstrate equity, hit those carbon quotas, and out-run the competition. Do that, but without the shallow manipulations and shaded boasts.

Just Do That.


Post by Alan Kelly, Playmaker Systems

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