The NFL Has Entered the Culture War: Is Your Brand Next? Ad Age 10.17.17

Posted On October 17, 2017
By Jason Burnham

Brands are playing an increasing role in our escalating culture wars, with the NFL only the latest to
find itself on the frontlines.

Don’t be fooled, your brand could be next—and no path forward is easy. Beverage companies must
weigh child obesity with a person’s right to choose what to drink. Google was slammed both for
under-representing female engineers and for limiting free speech when it fired the author of well publicized, anti-female rant. Even small brands and independent businesses become headline news
when the culture wars intersect with day-to-day business.

An emotional journey drives brand love and loyalty

The NFL finds itself in the culture war, and it must h ave a viable plan for long-term sustainability.
Over 80% of a business’ value resides within intangible assets, much of which is attributed to brand
equity. To build real value, the first step is to stop trying to control your brand and focus on becoming
a proactive influencer of your brand perception.

Brands need to plan for the culture war by playing a conscious part in their employees’ and
customers’ emotional journey. It is necessary to understand the interconnected — and
interdependent — relationships between your brand and popular culture. Social media listening,
customer service, public relations — these groups must become the front lines of information for
senior executives creating a go-forward strategy. Often, the writing is on the wall that an
organization is vulnerable to a sensitive issue. Take Colin Kaepernick, who “took a knee” in August
2016 and has been a lightening rod for popular culture discussions ever since.

There is purpose in purpose, and value in values
As people become more socially conscious, they become more selective about the brands with which
they affiliate. At the same time, today’s workforce is seeking organizations that align with their
values and provide purposeful employment.

If a business desires growth and sustainability, it is left with no choice but to become socially
conscious. Coke is showing commercials with smaller soda bottles; Exxon and Shell are investing in
sustainable fuels. These moves combine business sustainability with social consciousness.

Purpose-driven brands and values-based businesses are rapidly gaining market share. The brands
that will survive and thrive are the ones who have the foresight to understand how popular culture is
evolving, and adapt. Facebook created Facebook University to recruit and train employees from more
diverse backgrounds, understanding that this was both socially conscious and relevant for their
diversifying customer profile.

Your culture is your brand, so be the brand you want to create
Your brand identity is not defined by the “words on the wall.” UnderArmour may post its code of
conduct on its website, but that didn’t stop the company from having to deal with a backlash from
“divisive” comments the CEO made about having a “pro-business” president. Your vision, mission,
brand promise and values should be brought to life through the actions of your employees and
executives, as well as the experiences they provide to customers.

Brands like Nordstrom and Starbucks famously use a playbook to unify employees and specify how
they should treat consumers in normal business transactions. Now, companies need a code to govern
their larger involvement in cultural issues.

What should the NFL do?

It has two options. It could empower each team to make their own choice as to how they will express themselves and live their values. Sponsors could then decide which teams they choose to sponsor, based on those who align with their own brand and customer values. Alternatively, the NFL could take a unified stance, establishing new rules for all of its teams. Only time will tell how the NFL will choose.

As for your brand, the time is now to define and align your values internally. Create a plan for
communicating those values in words and in action that includes every employee. With a consistent,
socially-conscious strategy in place, the culture wars become less threatening.

Game on!