I’m amazed at the versatility of Nike Dunks. The basic model is so clean that the mood and impact of the shoe are as limitless as the colors, textures, and materials Nike has at its disposal. The recently released “Black and Tan” and “Guinness” Dunks feature a classy neutral palette and textured leather worthy of “dress sneaker” designation. Both shoes are limited-editions and the release coincides with the St. Patrick’s day holiday. Looks aside, Nike is receiving strong criticism for the names of the sneakers, particularly the “Black and Tan.”
When most American’s hear “Black and Tan” they think of a beer parfait or an ice-cream sundae. But “The Black and Tans” is also the common name for the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, which was responsible for atrocious war crimes against civilians during the Irish War for Independence in the 1920s. It’s kind of like if they released a black and red “Nazi” sneaker special for Chanukah, or a nice all-white KKK sneaker with crosses on it for black history month. Not to equate those histories, but you get the idea.
While I was ignorant of the troubling significance of the term prior to hearing about the Nike flap, it literally took me less than half a second to get better informed. My search took .24 seconds. Which leaves me with the same question posed by Ciaran Staunton, President of the US-based Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform:
“Is there no one at Nike able to Google Black and Tan?”
Holidays help sell products and Nike, like most companies, wants to capitalize on that. The fact that they avoided the old-hat marketing clichés of discount sale, in-store POS, or online takeover and opted instead for a limited edition sneaker not featuring even a little bit of green or hint of a clover shape shows that their Marketing team for this project is savvy.
What’s surprising is that the same team managed to miss some basic vetting tasks. Usually, before a project even gets started, basic questions have to be answered: Has the name of the campaign been used before? Is it to close to something done before? What does the legal team have to say about it? While the cupcake store down the street doesn’t necessarily go through this each time they run a promotion, Nike certainly does. Every time.
How does the term ‘Black and Tan’ make it past dozens of people at Nike without getting squashed on the grounds that it would likely be offensive to members of the very culture celebrating the holiday the shoe is intended to commemorate? Maybe that issue was raised, and others thought good-consumer-feelings about beer parfait (who doesn’t have good feelings about beer parfait?) would overshadow the history behind the name? Maybe some copywriter said, ‘It’s ok, we’ll just push the design’s connection to the drink and everyone will understand the shoe is not an endorsement of bloodshed?’ Maybe no one on the project was Irish or thought to run the idea by an Irish person? “Irish Friend” it turns out, is only a slightly slower vetting tool than Google. My Irish friend’s immediate response to this debacle was “No self-respecting Irish orders a Black and Tan.” I don’t think he was just referring to the bad idea of tampering with Guinness, either.
It may seem unbelievable but it happens. I’m at plenty of meetings where a major roadblock is thrown up, and people push hard to climb over it instead of removing the issue that caused the road-block in the first place.
When big firms capable of recovering from small PR crises with the aid of our short memories have marketing problems like this, you have to wonder: Did they do it for the press? This is a single colorway, with a single release. Nike could easily throw some controversy out there to buoy chatter about the shoe and the SB line. A well-crafted apology, and they’re back in business! NOT saying they did it. Just saying a ginormous billion-dollar company like Nike could handle fallout over a single limited edition without even feeling it.
In the end, good marketing is good research. A team should make themselves aware of all the references associated with any copy or concept they’re going to attach to their brand. This is basic. The difficult part is figuring out what to do when you do find something troubling, like say, that your new sneaker is named after a brigade of war criminals. What then?
Do you figure out if the number of people likely to be offended is small enough that the problem won’t affect sales and go ahead with it? Do you decide that regardless of sales, the copy should be changed on ethic principle? While the horrific actions of the Black and Tans are easily indictable, there are lots of groups of people who are offended by lots of things. Imagine Nike issuing a press release apologizing to Vegans for using leather to make their sneakers. To a lot of meat-eating people like myself, it may sound ridiculous, but many Vegans believe that “meat is murder.” Who is Nike, or anyone, to decide their offense is less important than that of another group?
While it certainly is not within the authority of a marketing team to decide who’s feelings of offense are important and who’s are not in a fundamental sense, it is absolutely their task in the context of whatever campaign they’re working on. It’s true also that there are no easy answers to the overarching problem around who is ok to offend and who is not, since no matter where the line is drawn, it will certainly be thin. That said, one thing that is totally easy is a .24-second Google search. Just sayin.