Buzz vs. Brand

A few months ago I wrote about research I conducted on whether buzz was useful or harmful in branding.  The recent limited release of Nike Retro Air Jordan provides a great example of how buzz and branding can be in direct conflict.

If you missed it, Nike released a limited supply of Retro Air Jordans in retail stores on December 23, 2011.  The limited supply and timing so close to Christmas resulted in fights, stabbings, gunshots, injuries, arrests and other havoc at malls around the country as shoppers tried to get their hands on a pair of sneakers for a mere $180 (does that include a pick-up game with MJ?).  Peace on earth, goodwill to all men, indeed!

Clearly someone (or many people) in Beaverton should have figured out that short supply + 2 days before Christmas = Problems.  I am sure someone did (if not, heads should roll for lack of foresight), but they were overruled in the name of “buzz”.   Under the banner of “there is no such thing as bad press”, the public relations folks were probably salivating about the publicity the release would generate.  The sales folks were dreaming of their inflated bonus checks from sales of other Nike sneakers customers would buy when the Air Jordans were gone.

So the riots happened, people were hurt and the news outlets were full of coverage during the traditionally-slow Christmas Eve news cycle.  Mission accomplished.  Of course, Nike’s official reaction was shock, shock that such a thing had happened.
 But violence occured when the original Air Jordans were released in the 1980s and the company should have expected this.  Talk about a lack of institutional memory!

But what did this do for Nike’s brand?  The company still has a black eye with some people when it comes to social responsibility because of horrid working conditions, low wages and the use of child labor in sweatshops it contracted in undeveloped countries in the 1990s.  Organizations that monitor these things say the company has made tremendous strides in this regard and the company has made a concerted effort to be seen as more socially responsible in recent years.  The Retro Air Jordans release can’t be seen as anything but a setback on the social responsibility front, especially among those who consider the company a “bad actor” from its not-so-distant history.

What should Nike have done?  They have a great e-commerce web site.  Why not take pre-orders on the web site and ship them overnight (even include the overnight shipping in the price: Nike’s Christmas present to you!)?   I am sure a creative PR person could have created a great press outreach around Nike—learning lessons from the past and trying to avoid violence—was selling the limited supply of Retro Air Jordans only on its web site.  Could even keep a running total on pre-orders to build momentum.  While I know this approach would not have generated the same amount of press coverage, the publicity would have been more positive and supportive of what Nike is trying to accomplish regarding its brand reputation.

Unfortunately, many companies allow short-term buzz to overshadow their long-term branding efforts.  Having a concise brand statement against which to test buzz opportunities can keep you from derailing your branding efforts.  Some test questions you should consider:

  • What are the likely results of this buzz campaign (based on our previous experience, other’s experiences or realistic assumptions)?
  • If these likely results play out, would it be helpful, harmful or neutral to our branding efforts?
  • If we proceed with the buzz campaign, what actions should we plan for damage control if the buzz turns negative?
  • What is the trigger to implement the damage-control plan?

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