retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

In 1910, in a speech delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, former President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of how credit belongs to “the man who is actually in the arena.” It is a speech that was referred to often in the past week or so, during the coverage of the passing of Sen. John McCain, perhaps most movingly in the eulogy by former President Barack Obama.

I’ve been thinking about that speech this week because of moves made by several companies this week that placed those businesses right in the center of the arena, even though these moves also may have placed them at the center of a bulls eye.

It probably is a dead heat in terms of which move was the most controversial, but for being pure Twitter bait, I’ll give the nod to Nike, which decided to make Colin Kaepernick the face of an ad campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” slogan.

The theme of the new campaign: “"Believe In Something Even If It Costs You Everything.” The first video - which I think is an extraordinarily evocative piece of advertising - can be seen above, left, or here.

Kaepernick would seem to be perfect for this effort. He is, after all, the NFL quarterback who believes he has been blackballed by the league for social activism that had him taking a knee during pre-game renditions of National Anthem; while accused by some of disrespecting the flag and the nation’s military troops, Kaepernick and those who have followed his lead have been very clear that they have taken a knee to draw attention to cases of systemic police violence against minorities.

It is, to say the least, a hot button issue that has engendered debate and generated deep and passionate argument in the worlds of sports, politics, media and the broader culture.

My point in bringing this up is not to create a forum for a discussion of the Kaepernick case, though I will concede that from the beginning I’ve been clear about his stated motivations, and so have never felt that he was engaging in any sort of disrespectful action. Rather, it is to point out that this hardly is a safe choice for Nike, though it certainly is in character for a company that has been willing to push the envelope.

The New York Times writes that “the timing of the partnership with Mr. Kaepernick caught many industry veterans, as well as the N.F.L., off guard. For more than a year, Nike has virtually ignored Mr. Kaepernick and declined to use him in any of its marketing campaigns, even though he has been under contract to the Oregon-based company since 2011.

“The new partnership comes months after Nike extended its agreement with the N.F.L. to provide on-field uniforms for all 32 of the league’s teams. On Monday, when asked if Nike had informed the N.F.L. about the campaign beforehand, a Nike spokeswoman said that ‘Colin is not currently employed by an N.F.L. team and has no contractual obligation to the N.F.L.’”

And, while there have been plenty of objections raised to the new Kaepernick campaign on social media, with some folks burning their Nikes in protest, the Times notes that analysts of such things say that there seems to be more pro-Kaepernick sentiment overall. Estimates are that medias coverage of the controversy has generated some $43 million in free advertising for Nike. And, the Times writes that a recent survey from Morning Consult says that “urban and young consumers were more likely to say they would react favorably to a company that advocated the right of protesters to kneel during the national anthem. Indeed, on social media — where the nation’s youth live and breathe — Mr. Kaepernick attracted more than one million responses on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter in the hours after he announced the Nike partnership, according to ListenFirst, a social media analytics company.”

If it works out for Nike, it could provide Eye-Opening proof that taking politically controversial stands - as long as they are in synch with the brand’s identity and equity, as well as the priorities of its target consumer - may be a legitimate approach in today’s climate.

At the same time, Levi Strauss president/CEO Chip Bergh is getting involved in the gun rights debate, publishing a letter this week in Fortune in which he says that his company has "established the Safer Tomorrow Fund, which will direct more than $1 million in philanthropic grants from Levi Strauss & Co. over the next four years to fuel the work of nonprofits and youth activists who are working to end gun violence in America.”

And, he writes, his company “is partnering with Everytown for Gun Safety and executives including Michael Bloomberg to form Everytown Business Leaders for Gun Safety, a coalition of business leaders who believe, as we do, that business has a critical role to play in and a moral obligation to do something about the gun violence epidemic in this country.”

Bergh writes that after he requested in 2016 that gun owners not bring their weapons into his company’s stores - after one shopper accidentally shot himself while trying on jeans - he “received threats to our stores, our business, and even on my life. It was unsettling. But these personal attacks pale in comparison to the threats that activists and survivors from Parkland, Sandy Hook, and daily incidents of gun violence face every time they speak up on this issue.”

And so, he writes, while not calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment or anything close to that, Bergh says that he feels he has no choice in this case.

“As president and CEO of a values-driven company that’s known the world over as a pioneer of the American West and one of the great symbols of American freedom, I take the responsibility of speaking up on the important issues of our day very seriously,” he writes. “ We can’t take on every issue. But as business leaders with power in the public and political arenas, we simply cannot stand by silently when it comes to the issues that threaten the very fabric of the communities where we live and work. While taking a stand can be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option.”

I’m sure that some people will burn their Levis, but I respect Bergh for taking a principled and reasoned stand, and putting his money where his mouth is. Like Nike, Levi Strauss now may find itself in the center of a controversial public debate, as well as the center of a (metaphorical,I hope) bulls eye.

It is not nearly as controversial - except, I suppose, to those who feel that the National Park system is wasteful and/or an unaffordable public policy expenditure - but I also took note the other day of an announcement by LL Bean that it is donating $3 million - $1 million a year over three years - the the National Park Foundation, in the belief that it will help encourage people to visit the nation’s more than 400 national parks.

Again, this is right on strategy - LL Bean has been focusing for the past few years on its ‘Be An Outsider” campaign, designed to return the company to its outdoors roots and remind people of its origin story, as well as its credibility.

And, it puts LL Bean’s money where its mouth is. In the arena.

Look, I want to be clear about this. Not every company can or will engage in public policy debates. It will depend on culture and strategy and brand identity … and the ability to identify an intersection of all of these where a company can be persuasive and credible.

But when the Eye Opening moments come - and it would be my sense that we live in a world where, more and more, such moments will present themselves - business leaders may need to step up to the plate.

And, perhaps, remember what Theodore Roosevelt told us more than a century ago:

”It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

KC's View: