Whether their products are apparel, electronics or software, today’s corporations have to increasingly think about their brand image, and the values they represent and promote. That’s because buyers are increasingly sensitive about the values these products project about them into the world, and those who can afford it often ‘vote with their wallet’ to advance the causes they care about.
Corporations aren’t people (more on this at the end) but what they do projects their values, and unless there is little or no choice, people will care about that.1 In fact, the more similar options there are on the market, the more important it is to differentiate by the brand’s image.
Sometime during Uber’s unending public image nose-dive2 I switched to Lyft. (I still use Uber when I’m travelling in countries where Lyft doesn’t operate yet, which illustrates the point about competition.) Volkswagen Group is another corporation that can hope people are going to forget about their willful deception.3 As a positive example, HBO released a Last Week Tonight episode highly critical of the freedoms in China, forgoing their prospects in China rather than cozying up to their government.
What does that have to do with your voice, power and freedom?
Brands and Politics
Brand image can also get intertwined with politics either because the company directly lobbies for certain policies, or because it chooses to voice their values — as in Nike’s Believe in Something campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, — or because they are thrown into politics by actions or comments from their brand ambassadors, as was repeatedly the case with Adidas and Kanye West.
Much has been written about Nike and their Kaepernick campaign. Let’s quickly repeat the key points: Colin Kaepernick was the most prominent athlete calling attention to mistreatment of African-Americans by taking the knee during the national anthem. While some people felt this was not a suitable form of protest, it is perfectly legal.
Kaepernick’s right to take the knee stems from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and was upheld by the Supreme Court. Even so, it seems Kaepernick’s protests were sadly a factor in how he was treated by NFL teams.
Nike running the ad with the slogan “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” was considered controversial. No doubt that Nike lost some customers who feel strongly that Kaepernick’s behavior was inappropriate. On the other hand, it seems the company made not only a profitable business decision overall, but they were firmly on the side of defending the freedom of expression.
Adidas has not chosen to run a politically charged commercial, but they were repeatedly thrown into controversy regardless by the remarks from their collaborator Kanye West:
“When you hear about slavery for four hundred years. For four hundred years. That sounds like a choice. You was there for four hundred years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally in prison.”
— Kanye West on TMZ Live, May 1, 2018
And just as Adidas was promoting new shoes under Kanye West’s Yeezy brand, West tweeted that “We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th amendment.” (Emphasis mine.)
It is true that what West was clumsily trying to say in this latter statement is that the 13th Amendment should be changed, and not abolished. But that is not what he wrote.
Adidas had nothing to say about this, and I suspect largely because as a German corporation, they lack a cultural context for, and understanding of, how insensitive and divisive these statements are.
United States vs. Germany
What might be eluding Adidas executives is that a call (clumsy or not) to abolish the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution is at least as bad as a call to abolish §130 or §86 of the Strafgesetzbuch.
West’s statement that four hundred years of slavery seems like a result of a mental choice made by the slaves would be localized as stating that pogroms or holocaust were a result of a choice the Jews made. How would Adidas respond to that? This is not an exaggeration but a reflection of grasping the cultural differences between United States and Europe.
What It All Means
For Nike and Adidas
Americans do not agree that some aspects of free speech, even those that historically proved to cause terrible harm, should be outlawed. Nike would be wrong and disrespectful if they pushed this worldview in Germany by advocating abolishing laws against hate speech and symbols of Nazism.
By the same token, Adidas needs to try harder to relate to how insensitive and damaging West’s comments are in general, and to understand how they impact their brand and their customers in the United States. I own both Nike and Adidas shoes, but I honestly feel uncomfortable wearing Adidas now because they send a message to my neighbors and coworkers that I do not want to give.
For Democracy in the U.S.
Regardless of your political views, the reality is that U.S. voters have never been represented equally:
- 16.2% of the U.S. population decides 50 out of 100 voting seats in the Senate.
- In presidential elections, a vote in Wyoming has a 3.7 times more weight than one in California.
- The Supreme Court is, in turn, decided by the President and the Senate.
- The Court’s (non-)rulings on Gerrymandering and unlimited political spending push the imbalance further.
If you are reading this and you are an American, it’s highly likely you are one of the more than 80% people underrepresented by this system. Even though it’s diminished, your vote is still important. And ironically, since corporations are now considered people,4 you have an opening to wrestle some of your power back. The companies ultimately depend on someone doing business with them, and you have an opportunity to let them know what you think.
- If you are not thrilled about Apple, Google and Microsoft’s ethics, you will still have to use the products of at least one of them. And if a company has a near monopoly, they should work hard to ensure their customers aren’t with them simply because they had no choice. ↩
- These ranged from systematically targeting the competitor, Lyft, in 2014 by booking thousands of fake rides, through deceiving law-enforcement in 2017, spying on its customers, and sexual harassment scandals. ↩
- Impressions can last a long time. Uber had a new CEO for a year now but my behavior hasn’t switched back. Following their orchestrated exhaust emission deception, I am not going to buy a Volkswagen Group car. It is a way to send a signal to other corporations on whether unethical behavior pays off. ↩
- The Court voted 5-4 in the case ‘Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission’ in 2010 that the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for communications by corporations. ↩