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  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

Why Marketers' Reaction to Nike Exposes the Myth of Data-Driven Marketing

In our world of ‘data-driven marketing’, we can all expect to come across the meeting with the homage to all things Silicon Valley. It usually goes something like this “we need to change our culture... at Google, facts always trump opinion’. Now, without ‘going all Mark Ritson’, it’s time we called this out for the complete bollocks it is and nothing has confirmed this to me more than the reaction to the Nike Colin Kaepernick campaign over the past couple of weeks.

The thing is that data, and especially consumer data, requires interpretation and this is where, if we’re not careful, our faithful friend confirmation bias tends to rear its ugly head. Richard Shotton covers the Hastorf and Cantril experiments in his book, The Choice Factory, where fans' views on a football game were squarely viewed through the prism of loyalty. The tribalism of sports fans feels like a pretty good analogy for marketers and their relationship with Nike at the moment.

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose LinkedIn feed has been full of claim and counter-claim as to whether Nike have a) trashed their brand for eternity or b) created an unprecedented surge in sales through their unique slice of marketing genius.

As a bit of fun I’ve been keeping a log of the various headlines which have cropped up over the past week:-

Nike’s favourability drops double digits following new ‘Just Do It’ campaign (Morning Consult)

Nike’s sales surge 31% in days after Colin Kaepernick ad unveiled (Edison Trends)

5 Numbers from Nike’s Dream Crazy Campaign that Confirm Its Smashing Success (Business2Community)

Stunning brand tracking data reveals impact of Kaepernick campaign for Nike. Never seen numbers like it (@markritson, Twitter)

Nike’s retreat into Tribalism suggests they’re in trouble (Mediatel)

Nike risks backlash with Kaepernick deal (Wall Street Journal)

Nike mentions soar in wake of Dream Crazy ad (Brandwatch)

'Few companies can afford to anger that many consumers and survive' (Business Insider)

Colin Kaepernick more popular among Nike customers than with the general public (YouGov)

Despite Initial Blowback for Its Controversial Kaepernick Ad, Nike’s Sales and Stock Increase (Adweek)

Now I think enough has been written already on the relative merits of the Nike campaign for me to add my twopenneth worth here. However, Tom Goodwin probably had it spot on when he tweeted ‘The boring prediction about Nike sales is they will be about the same. And the share price will be about the same. And nothing will really change and that’s fine. And everyone did a great job

However, it did put into laser focus for me the challenges facing the modern-day insight team. There was a time (yes, I am that old) when the brand team would come wandering by the research team’s desk (nothing as fancy as insight teams in those days!) to ask when the brand tracking results would be available but these days there is so much data flying around (much of it freely available) that the key task for Insight teams has to be to help make sense of it all.

The challenge is that once data is flying around, it’s quite difficult to put the rabbit back in the hat. Just look at the amount of times each of these data sources were picked up by news outlets and positioned as fact. Just read through a selection of the comments to any one of these stories. The stories which back up the commentators own opinions are endlessly re-tweeted or shared and those which contradict their beliefs are shot down for being unreliable. This is even more complicated in Nike’s case where the issue strikes right at the heart of political beliefs rather than just pure campaign effectiveness.

The poor girls and guys in the Nike Insight team must be currently feeling over-joyed when one of their colleagues helpfully passes more data their way or when yet another agency calls or e-mails with some free data on their latest campaign. In our hunger to get data quicker and faster than ever before, no-one seems to stop and wonder whether or not the data is any good or what the motivations were behind the person collecting the data.

Sadly, very little survey data in the public domain is truly impartial – the questions have been designed and written often to support a particular agenda. I’m not crying ‘fake news’ here but simply being a realist – how many times have you heard the request ‘I need some data which shows…’. The timeless Yes Prime Minister sketch sums it up perfectly:

So what can Insight teams do in this climate? How can we disentangle the tiny clues from the erroneous few nutters on our social feed.

Firstly, it seems that, now more than ever, our objectivity has to be beyond reproach. We must be the voice of reason presenting all the facts and offering an interpretation not only surfacing those which support a particular point of view. This my sound glib but this is no mean feat when you are the one faced with telling a CEO their latest idea is actually a bit of a turkey.

Secondly, manage expectations up-front; make sure all the key stakeholders know what data will be available and when. Having a clear picture of when a rounded assessment is possible can often prevent stakeholders filling the void by taking knee-jerk decisions. It’s one thing being agile and responsive but it’s quite another to hit the panic button based on one spurious source.

Finally, join the dots across all your data. Look for patterns - Can this ‘finding’ be supported by other sources? Look for contradictions – this is often where the most interesting insights lie. Building these connections is how you’ll really be able to assess the veracity of what you’re faced with.

These are all easy to write but much harder to do. Businesses these days are impatient and there is huge pressure to provide the thumbs up/ down almost instantaneously. Yes, data is one of our greatest assets but to capitalise on this asset it has to be interpreted and applied intelligently. Having worked on many brand launches and also high profile initiatives such as The National Lottery price change, I can only empathise with the kinds of discussions happening at Nike towers right now but in times like this focusing on being measured as well as on measuring has to be the right approach.


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