Nike courted controversy when it cancelled a new line of Betsy Ross flag-stitched sneakers just before the Fourth of July. The American shoemaker, valued at over $130 billion, pulled the shoes after former NFL quarterback and company spokesperson Colin Kaepernick worried on Twitter that the flag was a racist symbol.
Anyone claiming moral leadership ought to consider why there was a backlash. It’s not simply due to middle America’s hypersensitivity to the trashing of national symbols. The hypocrisy is real when a major corporation represents itself as “moral” to a narrow constituency while at the same time putting off everyone else. Aggravating cultural division in a time of deep polarization is anything but moral.
Some observers explain away Nike’s offensive move as consistent with its established branding strategy. The Wall Street Journal reports that the shoemaker’s core customers—adolescent males—value brands that “get involved in social issues, have a moral message and express views even if they are controversial.” On CNBC, one CEO observed, “When you start to stray into using a version of the flag that has different meaning for different people, that’s a line you don’t want to cross.” Never mind that flags, like all symbols, always mean different things to different people.
The above observations notwithstanding, the sneaker flop contradicts Nike’s branding at least two ways. First, recall the company capitalized on Kaepernick’s image last fall with an ad featuring his face and the caption superimposed: “Believe in something, even if it costs you everything.” Back then, the quarterback was a plausible symbol of conscientious dissent, a hero speaking truth to the powerful NFL. But the spokesman’s role is different this time. Rather than positively expressing what he believes, he’s effectively dictating what Nike—and anyone downstream from their influence—must not express. He’s gone from dissident martyr to censoring cleric, an inconsistency that makes for a culture war loss.
Likening Kaepernick to a puritanical religious authority is no stretch. The Washington Post covered the flag’s potential racism as a prospective “contamination.” Rightly suggesting that people of good will should not readily surrender symbols to racists, Alyssa Rosenberg discussed the flag’s possible racist associations in terms of taint, poison, and desecration. This matches how social and legal theorists think about racism.
Even if Kaepernick and Nike’s executives are sincere, they are operating within a group morality that, like all others, casts judgments, pronounces taboos, and declares what’s sacred and what’s profane. To be moral in this sense is to police a moral community according to the judgment of its authorities, which leaves those who don’t accept its judgments feeling coerced or excluded. It’s a discomfiting tension for progressives to live with, given that these are the evils they like to tilt against.
Just because a corporation’s fan base, its peers, and even presidential candidates eat up and defend its branding doesn’t make it moral. At best, this is only winning the approval of one’s own tribe. Because corporate brands build loyalty through individuals’ voluntary acts of association, their authority is parochial at best. There’s nothing wrong with collecting together a band of people who “believe in something.” But if Senator Ben Sasse is right, what we think of as tribes are often anti-tribes. The danger is that believing in something slips into being against something and being against some others closely identified with that thing.
There’s a second way Nike’s shoe cancellation contradicts its branding: it didn’t “cost everything.” Rather, the company gained billions of dollars in market value by its iconoclasm. According to the Journal, company founder Phil Knight told a business school audience earlier this year, “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it.” He may as well have endorsed profit at any cost, frayed national political climate be damned.
This devil-may-care attitude seems out of step with the corporate social responsibility ethos that progressives embrace. That imperative has firms look beyond maximizing shareholder value to the interests of stakeholders like factory workers and the environment. If ecosystems and socioeconomic groups matter, then why not the nation’s civic climate? It destabilizes society when cultural titans needlessly alienate a large swath of fellow citizens.
Nike’s branding has got it backwards. It’s cheap to fire up one’s tribal base by being against something. The true moral leadership that our deeply divided society needs risks disappointing that base for the sake of the common good. It’s past time that America’s commentators, celebrities, and corporate leaders take that risk. It won’t cost everything.