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Why Brands Should Stop Pretending to Save the World

Do brand values even mean anything anymore?

In today’s world, there are two types of brands.

Brands that talk about doing a lot for humanity, and those that just do it.

Adidas & Nike: A Case Study in Crisis Response

Over the last month and a half, we’ve seen Adidas and Nike end partnerships with Ye and Kyrie Irving for publishing offensive antisemitic statements on social media.

Two prominent sportswear brands. Two controversy-ridden celebrities. Two very different brand responses. What made them so different?

It took Adidas 19 days to cut ties with Ye. Nike dropped Irving in 8. The extra 11 days Adidas spent dragging its feet caused a backlash from industry professionals and consumers who wondered what took them so long.

Both brands’ responses serve as a powerful case study about the importance of clear, authentic values for modern organizations. But before we get into that, let’s talk about where Adidas went wrong. 

Where Adidas Went Wrong

People buy from people they trust. Building this trust with your audience requires integrity and consistency. 

As a brand whose manifesto states, “We are fair. We are authentic. Our game is built on trust. We live inclusivity every single day,” people expected Adidas to stand up against Kanye’s questionable remarks. When they froze, it called their values into question. It called their identity into question.

Did they really believe all of that stuff? Or was it just a convenient narrative to sell more products?

These types of questions have led many critics on social media to raise red flags about the brand’s Nazi history, a PR nightmare that could’ve easily been avoided if the team had been more decisive.

Sure, the choice would cost Adidas a pretty penny. But prolonging the inevitable cost them a $246 million dollar deal plus countless loyal customers – a loss that’s sure to echo for years after the Yeezy buzz goes silent. 

Bursting the Values-Driven Marketing Bubble

The overlap between commerce and culture has never been more apparent than it is today. Purpose-filled brands are everywhere, driven by a broader cultural shift toward conscious consumerism. 

In order to stay top of mind in a market of increasingly choosy consumers, brands are forced to prove their relevance. Which unfortunately means some brands’ efforts to lead with purpose are manufactured from a pressure to stay ahead of the zeitgeist.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Values-driven marketing is an objectively good thing. Shared values give your brand direction – a guiding light in a turbulent world. Brand relationships grow stronger when your team and customers have a shared value system to rally behind. 

But the pressure has never been higher for brands to be purpose-filled, cultural change agents. And, as Adidas has proven, it’s causing some of them to crack.

Manufacturing values as a PR move is why we have issues like greenwashing, the tokenization of minorities in advertising and the workplace, and the exploitation of important social causes for the sake of boosting brand egos. 

Consumers have never been more skeptical than they are today, and for good reason.

This is purpose by performance.

Cleaning Up the Mess

Our consumers, our industry, and our world deserve better. And the good news is, it shouldn’t be very hard. We just have to change how we think about values. 

1. Shut out the industry noise.

Brands have never been louder about their values than they are now. But that doesn’t mean you should always listen.

The more you rely on popular category or industry narratives to shape your brand’s values, the more you risk drowning in the noise. You start to confuse who you are with who you’re expected to be, which is exactly how Adidas ended up in a brand identity crisis turned PR nightmare. 

Values have become the echo chamber of the marketing world. To create useful ones, you have to find your own voice.

2. Take off the marketing hat.

With that said, we need to get one thing straight. Values are not marketing language. 

If you’re defining your values based on what’s going to look good on your culture page, you’re focusing on the wrong audience. There is no golden rule that the outside world even needs to see your values. So ditch the marketing & culture buzzwords, and seek to define the ideas that authentically capture who your brand already is.

After all, strong values are born, not bred. 

When you focus on championing the things that fuel your team every day, your values will speak for themselves in every decision your brand makes.

What’s unique about how you do business? And more importantly, how does it show up in your organization today?

3. Let your values do the work.

Strong values give everyone on your team a shared decision-making language. When you know what your brand does and doesn’t stand for,  every decision gets a little easier. Even the trajectory-altering ones.

When you can count on your values to guide you to the decision that’s best for your brand, you can act faster, and with conviction. Taking risks feels less risky when you’re sticking to your guns. 

For example, remember when Nike risked pissing off the NFL to side with Colin Kaepernick? That campaign set records.

Or when Patagonia’s famous Black Friday ad told customers “Don’t Buy This Jacket”, and ended up selling a ton of jackets? Time will tell if the trend continues after Yvon Chouinard’s decision to donate the company, but I’m willing to bet it will. 

Chouinard said it best: “It’s kind of Zen. You do the right thing and good things happen.”

A Path Forward

We all want to leave this world better than we left it. But first, we have to be honest about where we are today.

Adidas’ and Nike’s latest press is a sobering example of the importance of ruthless authenticity for brands. Reminding us that as the brand universe grows more complex, we must grow more conscientious.

Amidst all this change, one thing remains constant – actions speak louder than words. So spend less time talking, and more time acting. Your team, customers, and brand will love you for it.

By Lauren Carr-Gasso Dec 12, 2022
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