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How To Actually Use Your Brand Values (And Grow Your Business)

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Three valuable lessons you should take away from Nike's massive misstep.

Raised fist against a bright sky
Photo by Oluwaseyi Johnson on Unsplash

This summer, we witnessed Nike blow the mother of all opportunities on the world stage.

It happened when U.S. track-and-field star Allyson Felix made Olympic history–and the story of how Nike had cut her contract after she gave birth to her daughter made headlines.

To say it wasn’t a good look for Nike–a brand that claims to value, 'empowering girls and women'–is an understatement.

The PR backlash was swift and severe.

What caused such a massive misstep by a company that’s widely praised for their masterful branding and marketing savvy?

Simply put, it was a failure on the part of Nike’s leadership to use their brand values to guide their decision making and create value for the organization.

This was a rare stumble by Nike, but it’s not uncommon for companies to think of brand values as fluffy words that get displayed on a website rather than the strategic business tool they’re intended to be. And it’s especially common for early-stage companies who often dismiss the “soft stuff” that goes into building a brand.

If you’re guilty of this kind of thinking, or just aren’t sure how brand values should be used to achieve brand growth, here are three important lessons you can take away from Nike’s misstep:

First, brand values should be non-negotiable.

Second, brand values should be socialized across your organization.

Third, brand values should be leveraged to open new markets and create value.

What went wrong

One of the big stories coming out of this year’s summer Games was U.S. track-and-field star Allyson Felix breaking Carl Lewis’ Olympic medal record to become the most decorated U.S. track-and-field athlete in Olympic history.

She crossed the finish line wearing her own brand of Saysh shoes which she launched after cutting ties with Nike in 2019.

I celebrate entrepreneurship (especially when it’s women-led) but the fact that Felix wasn’t wearing Nike shoes during this historic Olympic moment was an unforced error on their part.

When Nike signed Allyson Felix back in 2010, she was already a highly decorated athlete–and for the next seven years, she continued to rack up medals, flying over the finish line in Nike shoes and becoming one of the most-decorated track-and-field Olympians in its history.

Then, in 2018, Allyson Felix made the decision to start a family.

In response, Nike cut her contract by 70% and refused to offer her any guarantees if her performance declined in the months following the birth of her child.

Like a true champion Felix overcame this challenge. She turned down Nike’s “offer,” signed a better deal with Athleta, launched her own shoe brand, and went on to make history.

Lesson 1: Brand Values Are Non-Negotiable

For a brand that’s done so much to champion athletes of all genders, colors, abilities, sizes, and identities, there was still one type of athlete Nike couldn’t fully support–moms.

Nike sent a message to women that their brand values only extend so far–they support women athletes…until they become mom-athletes.

Sure, there are carve-outs for athletes like Serena Williams, who’s reached a level of performance and celebrity that insulates her somewhat from this type of gender bias. Which raises the question, “what’s the bar mom-athletes need to meet to be worthy of Nike’s ‘empowerment’?”

"Ironically, one of the deciding factors for me in signing with Nike nearly a decade ago was what I thought were Nike’s core principles. I could have signed elsewhere for more money." – Allyson Felix on why she originally signed with Nike

Brand values are fundamental principles and beliefs that guide or motivate a brand’s actions. In other words, a brand’s values are not things they believe sometimes.

When your brand's actions don’t line up with the brand values you claim, consumers lose trust in your brand.

And brand trust plays a vital role in brand growth.

Brand trust drives purchase and creates loyalty, which leads to advocacy and growth. According to an Edelman study 8 in10 respondents (81% globally, 80% US) said that trusting a brand to do what is right is a deciding factor in a purchase decision.

If you’re trying to grow your business, staying true to your brand values is paramount to earning and keeping trust.

Lesson 2: Brand Values Should Be Socialized Across Your Organization

There isn’t a single example of Nike cutting a male athlete’s contract for choosing to become a parent. So, for many women, Nike’s decision demonstrated how gender-bias keeps them disempowered.

Brand values are intended to help organizations make good decisions that create value and contribute to their long-term growth.

In Nike’s case, using their brand values to guide their decision-making would have been a smart business decision considering women make up 51% of the US population and control or influencer 85% of consumer spending.

It’s possible the four male executives who negotiated Felix’s contract weren’t properly onboarded to the company’s brand values or weren’t clear on how they should use them to guide decisions that impact long-term growth.

But their decision to disregard Nike’s stated brand values damaged the brand with a valuable demographic target.

If you’re trying to grow your business, ensure everyone in your organization understands your brand values and how to use them as a lens when making decisions.

Lesson 3: Brand Values Should Be Leveraged To Open Markets & Create Value

Imagine if Nike had made a different call…

If they’d viewed 'empowering girls and women' as an opportunity to attract a whole new audience of mom-athletes, instead of viewing Felix’s pregnancy as the kiss of death.”

They’d be the brand worn by the most decorated U.S. track-and-field athlete in Olympic history.

They’d be a hero to mom-athletes around the globe.

They’d have a platform on which to build an entire line of shoes, clothes, and accessories.

And they’d have a beautiful, strong, history-making mom-athlete as the face of that business.

It’s highly likely that even if Allyson Felix didn’t win her races, the story of Nike continuing to support her would have built good will and loyalty with consumers who identify with her story.

Instead, they’re left with a black eye and hill to climb to win back trust with women and mom-athletes (who also happen to be the ones deciding what brand of shoes to buy for their kids).

Now let’s contrast Nike’s actions with Athleta’s.

Athleta leveraged their stated values by embracing women for who they are holistically.

“We hold close our mission to ignite the limitless potential of women and girls. We strive to remove barriers for mom-athletes and celebrate who they are holistically.”

Since signing Felix, Athleta has launched “Allyson Felix x Athleta” a limited-edition collection of shoes and clothes for women runners. And together they founded #thepowerofshe Fund in partnership with the Women’s Sports Foundation, a first-of-its-kind grant program that committed $200,000 to fund childcare costs for professional mom-athletes who were headed to Tokyo.

If you’re trying to grow your business, look to your brand values to identify areas of opportunity.

Ask yourself what’s missing from the marketplace that can fill a need and advance your values at the same time. This may be a product or a service that opens a whole new market for your brand.

Center Your Brand Values For Growth

A brand as big and powerful as Nike can recover from a mistake like this, but it will take time and investment, leaving them vulnerable to competitive threats.

Instead of risking your company's growth, take these lessons to heart and center your brand values in your long-term growth strategy.

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