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In a globalized world, words spoken in one land can spark trouble in another. To avoid precipitating a crisis, brands are then called upon to act to limit damage. This month, Nike stopped selling merchandise of NBA team Houston Rockets at stores in China. Mint probes the issue.

Why did Nike pull its merchandise in China?

The general manager of NBA team Houston Rockets sent a tweet (now deleted) expressing solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong. The team distanced itself from the comment, but it caused repercussions, with a potential to impact NBA’s business dealings in China. NBA’s business in China is worth more than $4 billion, according to media reports. The Houston Rockets are also popular in China because of its former star player Yao Ming. China is dialling down the anger to avoid damage to its own image, but Nike took a call to stop selling Houston Rockets’ merchandise in some stores of the country.

How are purpose-led campaigns affected?

Last year, Nike ran a purpose-led campaign featuring NFL player Colin Kaepernick. It was a high-octane campaign based on a controversy after he chose to kneel during the US National Anthem in protest of police shootings of unarmed black men. It was also in keeping with Nike’s “Just Do It" messaging and created a global buzz. It espoused a cause, a higher order value: “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything." With Nike’s move to safeguard its business interests in China, commentators say it’s tough to stick to an absolutist marketing stance while doing business in an interdependent world.

What is brand purpose and why is it popular?

Voted “word of the year" in 2018 by the Association of National Advertisers in the US, brand purpose refers to a reason to exist, a “higher calling" than just sales and often has a “social good" component. Many enterprises cite research that shows consumers, especially millennials, have more affinity with brands that take a stand on societal issues.

What’s the opposing view on this?

Brand purpose has always evoked polarizing opinions. Many industry veterans dismiss it as a fad, a buzz phrase meant to fool consumers. Their grouse is that companies that expound on brand purpose in ad campaigns often do not practise what they preach. They could indulge in dodgy business practices, pay lip service to the cause or have a messaging that has nothing to do with the product category. There are businesses that earnestly follow sustainable practices and see business impact.

How to make brand purpose work?

At the heart of this approach is relevance. The higher order benefit should be relatable in an authentic way to the brand and the consumer it is addressing. Aside from advertising claims, the brand should practise what it preaches across all its activities. If the cause has a tenuous link to the brand category or if the brand does not live up to the values it espouses, the message will ring hollow and could lead to a backlash.

Lakshmipathy Bhat is vice president of marketing communications at Robosoft Technologies.

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