Nike’s Houston Rockets ‘purpose washing’ reveals its true stance: Believe in something, unless it means sacrificing something

Recently, Nike pulled an NBA team's merchandise from its China stores after its general manager tweeted in support of Hong Kong protestors. In doing so, it proved that its purpose is hollow, not really a purpose at all, argues Richard Ralphsmith.

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” That was the headline of Nike’s biggest campaign last year, featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who, in a protest against police brutality, refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem. Nike’s campaign was supposedly in support of those who suffer in the struggle for human rights. But in recent weeks, the brand has shown the hollowness of its so called purpose.

Last month, Nike removed NBA team Houston Rockets’ merchandise from its stores in China. The background: Two weeks earlier, the Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters with the words, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”. The Rockets are a hugely popular NBA team in China.

The Houston Rockets, led by NBA heavyweight James Harden, are a popular team in China

Morey’s tweet went down poorly with the government, local consumers and Chinese sponsors. So Nike delisted the Rockets’ merchandise, making it clear what they believe in: the $1.68bn in revenue from its Chinese operations, rather than democracy and freedom of expression.

This is just one example of the cynicism of much of the ’cause’ or ‘purpose’ advertising that now dominates our media landscape. In 2017, Qantas spoke out on the same-sex marriage debate because it saw an alignment of belief and market opportunity. For the same reason, this year it reportedly pressured the Wallabies to sack Israel Folau after his controversial social media posts. It appears that, in both of these cases, Qantas judged that there was more financial upside than downside to taking a stand.

However, in an instance where the beliefs of Qantas stand in opposition to its financial interests, we see that it’s the beliefs that are sacrificed. A stand on principle would see Qantas end its partnership with Emirates, owned by the government of Dubai, where homosexuality is a crime punished by draconian penalties.

In another example, at the height of the #MeToo movement early this year, Gillette launched a highly contentious global belief campaign against ‘toxic masculinity’. It was met with huge consumer backlash and contributed to an $8bn write-down of the Gillette business by its owner, Proctor & Gamble. The brand has since quietly stepped back from the campaign.

These and other examples expose the insincerity of this global marketing trend. Purpose marketing has become ‘purpose washing’, a strategy to grow brands by exploiting our desire for guilt-free consumption. Like green-washing, it delivers feel-good vibes at no cost to the consumer.

The reason it’s losing effectiveness is not only because of the hypocrisy that often accompanies it, but because the market is overcrowded. Multiple brands are competing for the same purposes with no direct connection to their products. They seek a zone of acceptability where mainstream media, social media and consumer opinion are in virtuous alignment with business opportunity. The result is scores of brands taking almost identical positions on popular issues such as diversity and the environment, and none, for instance, speaking out in support of the Hong Kong democracy protestors.

There is immense power in belief. Closely related to faith, belief can forge affinity and common purpose among disparate people. With the traditional sources of our beliefs – religion and family – in retreat across the western world, corporates are seeking to fill the void by injecting brands with belief. They promise their customers the conscience-cleansing benefits of acting morally without sacrificing consumption.

This practice is proving beyond the abilities of the world’s largest marketers as consumers wise up. People are realising that they’re looking for purpose in all the wrong places.

This isn’t to say that there is no future in cause-related marketing. But it is fraught with danger.

Too many brands’ efforts have heightened consumer scepticism. To avoid purpose washing, brands need to choose issues that are directly relevant to the product or service, different from what others are doing, and held deeply enough that the business would sacrifice a significant market opportunity rather than act against it. For most, this is too high a bar.

By trying to fake it, brands end up adopting Nike position’s: ‘Believe in something. Unless it means sacrificing something.’

Richard Ralphsmith is co-founder and executive creative director of independent advertising agency DPR&Co


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