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Power of brands,Social Media

Is Being Controversial a Good Marketing Approach?

I have been a fan of Nike for a long time, I even read Phil Knight’s book Shoe Dog and I loved it. It has been Nike’s marketing strategy almost since the beginning to sponsor controversial athletes. In this book, Phil Knight tells the story of how they started sponsoring athletes that at the time were controversial like John McEnroe for example or more recent athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams

In 1973 Nike signed Steve Prefontaine as its first sponsored athlete. This is what Phil Knight said about that deal“Pre was a rebel from a working-class background, a guy full of cockiness and guts,” said Nike co-founder Phil Knight. “Pre’s spirit is the cornerstone of this company’s soul.” So, this brings me back to the main idea. Is it a good idea to take advantage of controversy as a marketing strategy? It has worked for Nike since the beginning, but should it be something other brands look into doing?

The reason this has worked for a company like Nike is that the decisions of sponsoring and being associated with controversial people go together with the company’s core values. Just like it says in Phil Knight’s quote “it is the cornerstone of the company’s soul”. They state on their company’s purpose that “Nike exists to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. Our purpose is to move the world forward through the power of sport – breaking barriers and building community to change the game for all. *If you have a body, you are an athlete.”. So, creating these controversial campaigns is part of what they do, because they believe in the people who do not necessarily fit in.

But these decisions take a big toll on the company’s earnings. Most of the time the positive balances with the negative, but not every company is Nike.  The most important decisions should come from the brand values and purpose and align their communication decisions with them. Brands should look for ambassadors that model their values in a way it is easy for the customers to see themselves reflected in those people, and want to be associated with them, and in consequence to be associated with the brand.

So, is it a good approach to be controversial? I think it depends. If your brand (like Nike) is looking for those “miss-fits” and wants to have an association with controversial people or topics, then yes, but do it because it fits with the brand’s values. If it doesn’t fit with your brand’s values, not because it would be something that will generate a buzz, because that wouldn’t be a strategy that would work in the long run.  


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