What Nike’s response to Lil Nas X “Satan Shoes” says about brand identity, customer loyalty and social activism

2022-06-29T12:55:00-05:00April 1, 2021|Opinion|

Nike announced this week that it was suing the art collective MSCHF, which was responsible for the Lil Nas X “Satan Shoes” collaboration that caused a massive uproar on social media.

What does the response to the unsanctioned kicks by Nike, a company that has displayed a growing interest in select social justice issues in recent years, say about corporate identity, customer loyalty and brand activism?

A strong brand identity is crucial to the success of any business. That includes crafting a consistent brand voice that reflects the tone, message and mission of your company, and eliminating anything that conflicts with it. Just as it’s essential for a company to develop a powerful brand style with visually appealing design elements, it’s also vital to ensure that social media direction, advertisement campaigns and other content are in sync and supporting the brand identity.

Companies like Nike rely on an internal creative team or expert brand journalists to guide their marketing direction with a strong understanding of organizational goals and values. A business can keep its messaging on-brand from within, though that can become costly and inefficient. But what happens if even a massive global sportswear company like Nike is so disrupted by a small arts collective modifying its product that it ostensibly hurts the overall brand identity?

The backstory

While the popular and provocative rapper’s custom sneakers are getting a ton of press and sold out in less than a minute, they also caught the disapproving eye of Nike. MSCHF modified 666 pairs of Nike Air Max 97s with satanic imagery, such as a bronze pentagram and upside-down cross, as well as supposedly inserting a drop of human blood into the soles. Nike is suing on the basis of trademark infringement, claiming the modifications create a “dilution” of its brand. 

According to CNN, Nike “asked the court to order MSCHF to ‘permanently stop’ fulfilling orders for the ‘unauthorized’ Lil Nas X Satan Shoes,” noting that “social media users have threatened to boycott Nike over the controversial shoes.”

Nike’s involvement with social justice 

In the past, Nike has been clear about its stance on relevant social justice issues despite possibly alienating some demographics. Of course, however, the brand also wants to be in control of how it is perceived. As a market leader and household name, Nike believes it gets to establish the causes with which it wants to be associated. 

The brand has come under valid global criticism in the past for poor working conditions and connection with sweatshops, but Nike has also shared public campaigns in support of causes such as Black Lives Matter, as well as a commitment to a Community Impact Fund to provide financial aid to local community organizations. 

Aligning with these causes, among others, has helped to build Nike’s reputation among more socially conscious consumers. After it stood up for the Black Lives Matter movement, including a campaign with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, some conservative former brand loyalists began to boycott Nike, even resorting to destroying merchandise they already had purchased. 

Being clear about where your company stands on social issues can come with consequences. Despite the risks, though, companies should be bold in expressing their views not only because they believe it’s the right thing to do, regardless of politics or social attitudes, but also potentially to strengthen a core audience that aligns with those same values.

Is there cause for a lawsuit?

An art collective selling unauthorized custom Nikes is certainly fair game for a lawsuit, though aftermarket personalization remains a grey area, according to legal experts. MSCHF has released other customized sneakers, including “Jesus” shoes containing holy water from the River Jordan. Nike asserts that since the art collective bought a large quantity of actual Nike shoes and modified them, there is a significant chance a consumer would think the project is coming directly from the company itself. 

Nike’s choice to pursue legal action in this situation while ignoring other small-batch Nike customizations and even counterfeits is more likely an issue of the brand trying to prevent anything from tarnishing its hard-earned brand identity. 

Why does Nike care?

Being controversial and even progressive is not out of Nike’s wheelhouse, but the association with human blood and the devil seems to cross the company’s line. Supporting BLM broadly or selling LGBTQ+ Pride T-shirts appears to be a safer, mainstream move that may upset some customers but is unlikely to completely estrange the more conservative and religious buyer persona. The suggestive imagery in Lil Nas X’s campy viral music video for Montero upset many people, and it would not align with Nike’s more squeaky-clean, “safe” support of the Black and Queer communities. 

Nike is a huge corporation, and it would be naive to assume its association with popular social justice movements is not at least somewhat self-serving. Genuine brand activism can be great for the community, but it also benefits a company’s bottom line, if done strategically. 

Since Nike did not oversee MSCHF’s modifications, it had no way to tactfully express where the company stands on the important issues Lil Nas X addresses in his music, particularly the racially intersected homophobia experienced by a Black gay man in America. While Nike may have aligned with similar civil rights concerns in the past, it could not control how the association with such a provocative, sacrilegious video reflected on its brand identity. At least, that’s what Nike claims in its lawsuit. 

Brand identity is everything

As a leader in its industry, Nike has painstakingly crafted its brand logo, imagery, advertising, product style and more to produce a cohesive athletic line that is instantly identifiable. Nike essentially owns the swoosh today, and anyone using something similar in a logo or design is bound to get both the comparison to and censure by the company.

In the past, gaining this kind of brand awareness and carefully honed identity took decades. While it still requires expert guidance, dedication and a great product or service, with the advancement of technology and the rise of brand journalism, your company can build incredibly strong brand recognition and viral potential.

Brand journalism can help

So, how can you get started burnishing your business’s reputation with curated blog content, consistent email marketing, engaging short-form video, scroll-stopping social media posts and more? The future of brand awareness lies in utilizing a virtual marketing department to assist in the areas you need most. You won’t overpay for services that don’t make sense for your business goals, and you’ll save time and budget by trusting your content marketing strategy to the pros.

Let PowerPublish’s brand journalists help you create relevant, timely content such as a company values statement that tells your audience exactly who you are, what you stand for and why you support it. You’ll gain access to your own virtual editor and brand journalism team that will work with you to publish consistent, compelling content that increases SEO authority and establishes brand recognition over your competition. Contact us today to schedule a demo and learn more.

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