Branding can mean something. It can be a way to summarize what you are, what you stand for. However, branding is too often used to make gullible people believe anything. Much branding is a form of psychological trickery, emotional manipulation, magic.

Nike is now running a campaign with Colin Kaepernick. The cause is good. But is the brand good? “Nike carefully weighed its choices with Kaepernick, and placed a strategic bet on the athlete-turned-social activist,” CNN wrote. An investment analyst called the ad a "stroke of genius."

A stroke of genius indeed. As the journalist Dave Zirin wrote for The Nation: “Nike has used the image of rebellion to sell its gear, while stripping that rebellion of all its content.” With Kaepernick, maybe they’re adding just a little bit of content, just to spice it up a little. Maybe to cover up a few uncomfortable truths while they’re at it.

“For too many women, life inside Nike had turned toxic,” a New York Times 2018 report began. An example: Senior executives approved an ad for a shoe for women that featured a woman twirling on a stripper pole and male athletes in sports bras. So what if Nike has a toxic, misogynist culture where women are constantly overlooked for promotions. What on earth has that got to do with the brand?

And those sweatshop problems. Back in the 1990s, Nike was a real slave driver. Because of social pressure it cleaned up its act. But you know it’s hard to get rid of certain habits. In 2017, Quartz reported that "Nike’s sweatshop problem is threatening a comeback." Lara Robertson writing for Good On You quoted reports which highlighted "the ever increasing amount of money paid on sponsorships to sports stars and other marketing expenses compared to the reduction of the share of the final price of your sports gear paid to workers in the supply chain."

Nike reminds me of BP in the '90s and their ‘green’ Beyond Petroleum campaign which won lots of marketing awards during the very period when BP was aggressively divesting from environmentally progressive initiatives. Brands believe in magic, believe with the right campaign they can convince you that black is green.

This is why most corporate websites are a noxious stew of fake smiley images and fake content. The branders figure that if empty promises and fantasyland realities work offline, then surely it works online too. Not quite. Sure, this type of branding still has lots of power online.

Learning Opportunities

But who would have imagined 20 years ago that one of the biggest brands today would be a search engine? A few months ago, I listened a senior marketer go on and on about the brand experience. “You’re search engine doesn’t work,” I told him.

“What’s that got to do with the brand?” he replied.

Findability, navigation, search: these are alien concepts to a traditional brander who believes they can control the journey, invent the experience, magic up the reality. Online, it’s not quite like that. Online, things are just a little bit different.

Online, millions are manipulated, but millions more go online because they are developing immunity to branding. They’re on their own journey, questioning more, comparing more, reviewing more, sharing more. Old branding controls the journey. New branding supports the journey.

fa-solid fa-hand-paper Learn how you can join our contributor community.