Jeans and trainers: when brands get woke

Money-spinner: Kaepernick’s new Nike deal could be worth around $5 million a year.

Should brands be political? Levi Strauss came out against the US gun lobby just days after Nike’s controversial Colin Kaepernick adverts. But many are uncomfortable with “woke” brands.

Jeans and guns. Two symbols of America. Though they are very different, they did not use to be mutually exclusive. But as the US’s political and cultural divide becomes ever more pronounced, those days may be over.

Levi Strauss & Co, one of the leading jeans designers in the world, has announced a partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety and other gun violence prevention groups.

“While taking a stand can be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option,” Levi’s chief executive, Chip Bergh, wrote. “Business has a critical role to play and a moral obligation to do something.”

The move follows a string of boycotts of the National Rifle Association (NRA) that followed the Parkland school shooting in February. Walmart, United Airlines and others all cut ties with them.

The NRA was withering in its response to the latest move against it, declaring it “a particularly sad episode in the current surge in corporate virtue-signalling”.

The trend of brands taking overtly political stances grabbed the headlines two weeks ago when Nike included Colin Kaepernick — the first NFL player to refuse to stand for the US national anthem in protest against police mistreatment of black people — in its 30th anniversary ad campaign for its Just Do It slogan.

The campaign was greeted with fury by some, with some critics of Kaepernick filming themselves burning their Nike trainers. “What was Nike thinking?” tweeted President Donald Trump.

So what are these brands thinking? Are all their statements about wanting to change the world honest — or are they thinking about their profit margins? Do they really mean it?

“Younger folks want brands to stand for something,” says advertising expert Patrick Rishe. “They want them to be culturally relevant.”

Nike’s stock is at an all-time high. That could be proof that their stance is a popular one, or a simple case study for the cliché that all publicity is good publicity.

But do we really want our choice in clothes and electronics to carry a political message?

Just don’t do it?

This is a good thing, argue many. Brands have the cultural power to change things for the better and to act as a counterweight to established power. They are more than simply companies that make and sell products. Brands are pure symbols of democracy: if people object to what a brand stands for, it will suffer.

Why does absolutely everything have to be political? ask others. The current political landscape, especially in America, is exceptionally toxic. Brands have a responsibility to not irritate half of their customers and increase ill-feeling even further. It is the height of vanity to adopt fashionable causes and not care about the consequences.

You Decide

  1. Should brands be political?
  2. Would you ever boycott a brand over a political stance?


  1. Think of one of your favourite brands and design a billboard advertisement for it that makes a political statement.
  2. Research another example of a brand making a political statement. Write 500 words on whether you think it was the right decision.

Some People Say...

“The point of branding is to make a corporation into a human being.”

Michael Serazio

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Nike and Levi Strauss are the latest high-profile brands to ally themselves with political causes, namely protests against police discrimination and the pro-gun lobby. This trend has been on the rise in recent years. The vast majority of political statements made by big brands are left-leaning. We know that younger consumers are the most keen for brands to become politicised.
What do we not know?
Why they do it. Are the statements put out by Nike, Levi’s and others really sincere, or is the bottom line always about profit? We also do not know to what extent boycotts of the NRA by major companies will affect the organisation’s power to influence policy.

Word Watch

National Rifle Association
The NRA is the leading lobby group for gun rights in the US. It has more than five million members and an annual revenue of around $400 million. It faces heavy criticism for defending the Second Amendment after every major shooting in the US.
Parkland school shooting
On February 14, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, 19-year-old Nicholas Cruz — who had been expelled from the school — killed 17 people with a semi-automatic rifle. Following the shooting, several survivors became major voices in the campaign to restrict gun ownership.
The company was criticised for hypocrisy for getting behind a high-profile cause in the US while still paying its employees in Asia extremely low wages. Nike also used child labour in the 1990s in Cambodia and Pakistan.
Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick has been a free agent since March 2017, having last played for the San Francisco 49ers.
An all-time high
The company’s shares hit a record high of $83.90 on Thursday after an initial drop following the release of the advert.


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