When I scroll through social media, I see messages that indicate most people don’t really understand the difference between messaging and branding. Forget facts. It seems that half the population has dismissed those as irrelevant.
In the business world, these concepts belong to the Marketing Department. That team has the job of deciding how to position a product in the market and what to say about it.
- In the high-tech industry, this may be totally different from what the engineers who developed the product think the message should be. That’s because what engineers think is important is not always (okay, not often) what’s important to the market.
- In the world of consumer products, marketing rules. They decide whether that toothpaste will be positioned as a cavity fighter, a breath freshener, a tooth whitener or a way to create a sexy smile. What the chemists who created the toothpaste think does not inform the discussion.
What Marketing Decides
My personal definition of marketing is making people do what you want them to do because they think it’s good for them or the right thing to do. Keep that in mind.
Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping? (If you get this, I know how old you are.) Marketing decides. The sequence has three points:
- Facts: what the product actually does and how it works
- Branding: how the product is defined to the market
- Messaging: the words and images you use to communicate the brand.
The Facts: Protesting Murder
I know most people have trouble with these concepts because I see that confusion every day. Take the Colin Kaepernick controversy, which has returned to the news recently. The (former) football quarterback began taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest the extrajudicial killings of black men and boys by police officers.
- He was not protesting the National Anthem.
- He was not protesting the American flag.
- He was not opposing or criticizing the military.
- He was not being unpatriotic.
His cause has been bolstered by numerous videos of police officers shooting black men and boys for a variety of reasons—and sometimes for no reason at all. These visual records take the controversy out of the realm of “who said what” and provide clear evidence of brutality and murder.
Passive disagreement and non-violent protest are as American as the game of football itself. So, one would think Colin Kaepernick would be respected for his belief.
The Branding: He’s Not a Patriot
Now to the branding.
The opposition Intentionally and persistently branded Mr. Kaepernick’s protest as unpatriotic. They claimed that he was doing exactly the things listed above. They implied that he’s not a real American. And they spread that brand as widely as they could on blogs, social media, conservative web sites and Fox News. People read this perspective often enough and in so many different places that they believed the false brand and spread it further.
When Nike put Mr. Kaepernick into their “Just Do It” ad campaign this week, they meant to highlight the fact that he stood up for what he knew to be important, regardless of the consequences. The headline says, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” That’s a sentiment most Americans would agree with—if it wasn’t attached to Mr. Kaepernick.
Mr. Kaepernick has sacrificed his career for his beliefs. He has not played football since 2016 and he has filed a grievance against the National Football League for collusion to keep him from playing. The consequences of demonstrating his beliefs have, indeed, been significant.
The Messaging: Our Soldiers Made the Real Sacrifices
The message that drives home the false brand is that members of our armed services have sacrificed more than he has. I have seen pictures of military cemeteries, coffins, soldiers in uniform, etc. with the message “They made the real sacrifice.”
This is true for some members of the military and not for others. But it is also true of our armed forces vs. most civilians. And it is certainly true of military sacrifice vs that of the people cynically attacking Colin Kaepernick.
The Reaction: Burn Nike Products
The reaction, which I find kind of humorous, is taking place among those who have swallowed both the branding and the messaging. They have begun destroying the Nike products they already own and for which they have paid quite a bit of money. They take pictures and post them on Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes they cut the Nike logo off, which may make the product unwearable and therefore useless.
Setting fire to Nike athletic shoes seems to be particularly popular. So eager are some men to do it that they don’t wait to take their shoes off before they light them up. Perhaps they don’t realize that they should. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “hotfooting.”
A Double Whammy
In a way, this campaign is a double whammy. By putting Mr. Kaepernick in their ad campaign — and refusing to back down in the face of criticism — Nike says what they believe in, even if it means sacrificing profit margin or stock price. They stand up to the misguided wrath of people who believed the brand and the message instead of the facts. They will accept the consequences.
Why has the opposition adopted this deceptive branding in the first place? Because getting people mad at Colin Kaepernick for doing something perceived as unpatriotic obscures the message about race. “Look over here at these hero soldiers” prevents people from looking over there at police misconduct, brutality and murder. It’s that simple.
A Serious Debate
I worked in marketing for my career, so I watch this process play out with some bemusement. Is it a dessert topping or a floor wax? That’s a product brand decision. This debate is more serious. Is a cigarette an appetite suppressant, a minty fresh taste, a symbol of sophistication or a way to get cancer? How you brand something can have important consequences. The consequences could be important.
I know that, if you can use branding and messaging to fire up people’s emotions, you can control them. Emotions overwhelm logic. If you can control emotions, you can make people do things they might never otherwise do because they think it’s the right thing to do and they want to do it.
They might even set fire to their own shoes.
Related Post: What It Means to Take a Knee