The Prize for Nike’s Calculated Fall from Grace.

Why would a god descend from the heavens to participate in the turmoil of politics? It wasn’t to ‘stand for something’ as a brand, it’s because large scale attention can no longer be bought.

Technology has made our attention discretionary and the world skippable. Brands can no longer just buy the massive amounts of cheap, forced attention they are used to. The effectiveness of controversy in gaining attention has changed the outcome of elections and it’s starting to change the nature of marketing too.

This is not how brands behave.

The Kaepernick campaign has been hailed as brave and a smart bet. The scale of their wager should not be underestimated. Doubling down on a growing customer segment while openly turning your back on less appealing one — is not just brave, it goes against the nature of brand building.

Brand building has its moments of bravery but much to the frustration of ad agencies everywhere, it’s largely about risk aversion and playing the long game. It’s Roger Federer not Colin Kaepernick.

Brands constantly have to balance growth and remaining relevant with protecting the $28 billion value of their brand. Brand managers lean to Warren Buffet’s advice, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” They are careful and calculated.

Nike has done such a great job of this over the decades that they have what most other brands can only dream of. They transcend politics and petty factions. They are for everyone. To be for everyone while managing to be cool is the unicorn status of brands.

Perhaps backing Kaepernick’s bold protest could have slid by in the past, but by taking a side in today’s toxic political climate, they have done what mega brands don’t do — they have said “we’re not for you” to a large portion of society. More people identify as conservative in the USA than any other political view. Nike has chosen to distance themselves to some degree from 100 million of the most valuable consumers in the world, Americans, and wagered their ‘for everyone’ status.

Nike’s own mission statement declares that they are for everyone: “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”

What could be worth taking such a risk? Attention is the lifeblood of brands, and the traditional ways of getting it are in decline.

Earned attention is becoming the only attention and everything else is becoming wallpaper, thanks to a number of compounding factors.

The gearing of sharing

Social media loves to magnify what’s being magnified. This leaves less room for things that are not viral or at least topical. Winners win big and losers don’t even exist. Attention has transitioned from a sliding scale to being virtually binary.

The power of sharing is twofold. Firstly, it increases reach. This is the quantitative side of the equation. Secondly, it’s an endorsement. This is the qualitative and vastly overlooked side of the equation.

Sharing something online is often more about signaling than anything else. It means I approve of this and I think you should see it. It gives messages instant credibility within social networks, opposed receiving something cold. It’s especially true of controversial subject matter. Donald Trump’s election victory is less confounding when you consider the qualitative side of the massive media he earned.

The stopping power of controversy

What stops people from scrolling past? Mild issues aren’t particularly arresting. Traditional ads with memorable mnemonics and polite payoff lines are too easy to skip. They don’t work at scale on skippable media and the environment where they do work, linear tv, is losing its potency and cost effectiveness.

Two days ago the world marathon record was not just broken but smashed by Eliud Kipchoge. He’s a Nike sponsored Athlete and they are all over this.

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Nike should take some of the credit for the record time too. Their Breaking2project set out to break the sub 2 hour marathon barrier, that many said is beyond what’s physically possible.

The huge margin Eliud shaved off the world record (1m17s) makes one feel that it is only a matter of time until the 2 hour barrier is broken. What could be more aligned to the essence of Nike than this belief? They developed a shoe specifically to achieve this feat. They have assembled the best experts to plan and coach the athletes. This is the perfect intersection of innovation and athletic performance. This is the god of victory.

On the other hand Colin Kaepernick is a good athlete but not the best. He’s definitely got an iron will but this is the muddy water of politics, not the god of victory.

Kipchoge’s world record is a feat so great, it deserves the world’s attention and should echo for years to come, yet it is overshadowed by the tail end of Nike’s Kaepernick campaign:

Similarly, Serena Williams’ controversy at the US open final will likely be a bigger media event than when she finally gets that 24th grand slam victory:

The interconnectedness and immediacy of technology has magnified our collective attention. It’s not just controversy that has become more captivating though.

Strong emotions, by definition, trump mild ones but the gearing of technology has exacerbated this to the point that mild emotions don’t get their fair share of attention, even if you pay for it.

This is why, through the lens of social media, the world appears to be constantly melting down and why issues are becoming so polarized.

Perhaps it’s because fear and anger are such visceral emotions that social media is better suited to politics than selling boxes of cereal.

Brands are slowly being suffocating by the new economics of media

The long term outlook for brands that rely on mild manners and traditional advertising is grim.

Firstly, attention is a zero sum game. People only have 24 hours a day. The three-plus hours of attention people give to their phones comes with a withdrawal from other areas where brands have traditionally bought media.

Secondly, even the media you buy now guarantees little. Skippable videos only work if they hook users from the outset. Fewer eyeballs are watching linear TV as viewing behavior shifts toward platforms like Netflix. The quality of attention TV ads get is also declining as viewers reach for their phones during ad breaks. While the quality of TV viewing is decreasing the price of TV ad real estate is increasing as desperate media owners try make their numbers with fewer buyers… in a kind of death roll.

The world has become skippable but most brands were brought up to be polite, and still make traditional ads that assume captive audiences. The entire advertising industry is wrestling with this change.

Nike wins this race.

To be swept up in the shared media psyche is to captivate the world’s imagination. While Nike is basking in a torrent of global attention, we have forgotten their competitors.

What prize could be worth a god’s fall from grace? When Nike tied themselves to the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick they got the biggest hit of attention they have had since Google has been recording (2004), by a huge margin and possibly the biggest spotlight they have ever had:

There can be no bigger prize.

Nike are boldly blazing a trail that others will follow. Just as Donald Trump has shown how the momentum of controversy can steamroll the mildness of logic in politics today, Nike has shown how controversy can fuel brands.

The recent spike in online sales and the sneaker burning protests will probably cool off but a shift to bolder, more controversial brands and advertising is just beginning.