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Marketers Beware of Brand Busting Blunders

Few of us look favorably on having the dubious honor of having our errors called out and scrutinized for the whole of the world to see and debate.  It is not hard to imagine that those who are charged with insuring quality control at Nike wish that they could find a nice, quiet, out- of- the- way place to hide right now.  The sports apparel maker recently offered a Panthers T-shirt which included a blue silhouette of the state of South Carolina, the team’s logo inside the silhouette and the letters “NC” in the upper left corner of the silhouette. The shirt sold for $32, but was soon taken down from the company’s web store.  Company spokesman Brian Strong said in an email that a small quantity of the shirts was offered for sale and shouldn’t have been. He said Nike apologizes for the error.

Nike is one of the world’s largest suppliers of athletic shoes and apparel and a major manufacturer of sports equipment, with revenue in excess of $24.1 billion with more than 44,000 employees worldwide.  Many would argue that all the hype over the products geographic error, while embarrassing, is an example of “to error is human” and that “we all make mistakes”; albeit some more noticeable, expensive and brand damaging than others.  For marketing professionals the mistake is indicative of potentially far greater problems within Nike management when it comes to quality, brand identity and fulfilling the brand promise.  The Nike brand alone is valued at $10.7 billion, making it the most valuable brand among sports businesses.

As the premier licensor of NFL apparel and memorabilia, Nike plays in arenas where a fumble on the goal line, or in the opposing opponent’s court in the final seconds of the championship, is akin to a life ending event for micro-discerning sports fans who demand flawless performances from their sports heroes.  Fans who visited Nike’s NFL apparel website on its opening day this year were treated to a number of misrepresentations of player numbers and team logo misprints.  While NFL teams have a preseason to debug and correct their performances prior to opening day marketers have no such luxury in a highly completive and often unforgiving business environment.  Such seemingly innocent errors, left unchecked, will surely bench the image of the industry’s best performing superstar.

The most recent snafu follows a number of negative, public relations apparel embarrassments for Nike earlier this year, neither of which could have been foreseen by Nike, lest they employed a Chrystal ball.  After the tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon, Nike pulled from the market T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Boston Massacre”.  The shirts, which featured blood-splattered lettering, were designed for New York Yankees fans to describe a pivotal late-season sweep by the Yankees of the rival Boston Red Sox in 1978. That season culminated in a World Series championship for the Yankees.  This clearly falls into the “some days you can’t win category” of marketing endeavors and Nike quickly and responsibly responded.

In the wake of the shooting death of his girlfriend in April, murder charges were leveled at Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius and Nike was in the position to pull an ad from the South African’s website proclaiming, “I am the bullet in the chamber.”  The ad showed an image of Pistorius, who first made history in London last year when he became the first double-amputee track athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, propelling himself from the barrel of a gun.

The fault for these unforeseen events cannot fairly be laid at the apparel giant’s feet, but given the huge increase of criminal misbehavior by prominent sports stars, Nike may find it wise to reconsider linking their brand, marketing content and images with violence and weaponry.  In the high- tech, fast paced digital, social media and mobile marketing world, complacency is not an option for company’s who want to avoid brand busting blunders.



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