Nike’s ‘Racist Sneaker’ Debacle: Should Marketers Be Involved In Product Development?


Nike’s recall of a line of shoesOpens a new window slammed by many consumers as racist has sparked major debate across America. “The controversy,” according to the BBCOpens a new window , “has reignited the anger at the heart of America’s gaping political divide.”

Featuring our nation’s first flag, created by Betty Ross during the American Revolution, the sneaker was no doubt meant as a patriotic tribute that would be released in time for Independence Day.

Many consumers, however, complained that the flag represents an era of slavery, with many quickly pointing out in the past that particular flag has been adopted by various extremist groups — including the American Nazi Party.

While there has been significant support of the sportswear giant’s withdrawal of the footwear — Nike said its decision to recall the sneakers was a result of “concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday” — there also has been vehement backlash from conservative-leaning consumers.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has even weighed in, saying he would make the first order if Nike changes its mind and re-releases the shoe.

As I watch Nike navigate yet another public and heated racism-related debate play out on social media and online (see:  Colin Kaepernick-starring campaignOpens a new window that led many angry consumers to burn their Nike apparel), I wonder if such a public response could have been predicted in the first place.

I may be biased with my pro-marketer viewpoint but I believe this whole ordeal illustrates why marketers should be more involved in product development.

Admittedly, I don’t know the extent to which Nike’s marketing team was clued in leading up to the release of the sneaker. Marketing may very well have had plenty of input and simply not connected the shoe to racist implications, but clearly nobody else at Nike did either (unless concerns were expressed and discarded).

Nevertheless, this controversy offers a textbook example of why in our digital world company leaders should consider incorporating a marketing focus in product development and management.

It’s all about the data

Consumer data is now at the heart of digital marketing and, as such, the best marketers now must be data-savvy.

Crucially, the data we’re primarily working with is consumer data, which means that beyond data expertise, marketers are also fast becoming customer experts.

Indeed, to market successfully and effectively to consumers online, it’s vital to know everything about them, from personal preferences, habits and behaviors, to their consumer journey and buy cycle.

I’m sure there are many product managers who will disagree with my assertion that marketing departments are turning into the company’s foremost authority on what makes their customers tick. After all, product teams are the ones who speak directly with users and elicit feedback.

Marketers, though, are increasingly tracking every element of their operations — gathering and analyzing key consumer data, such as which specific messages are getting prospects over the line and which campaigns are resonating most, not only with their customer base but also with the wider public.

Whether or not you agree with me, this is important data that can provide high-value insights to the product team on the market, competitors and prospective (and current) customers.

In Nike’s case, for example, marketers may have been more sensitive to the fact that the company’s customer base will be highly involved when it comes to race-related social causes and discourse.

Reducing friction

As most of us know, all too often marketers must manage friction and sometimes even combative relationships with other company departments. It usually reduces to differing priorities and goals across the various teams that also report to different executives.

One of the better-documented adversarial, inter-departmental dynamics in many organizations lies between marketing and salesOpens a new window . Slowly and surely, though, this is changing – finally – as business leaders realize that unifying the traditionally disparate data silos between these two teams leads to improved demand generationOpens a new window and conversions, faster sales cycles and better customer retention.

That same improvement in departmental cohesion now needs to make its way to marketing and product.

Generally, the main causes of discord between these two teams are:

  • Different sets of success metrics;
  • Short-term goals overshadowing the company’s big-picture, strategic-level objectives;
  • Dynamics and relationship between marketing and product lack definition, which leads to indecision, gaps/overlap in functions, and sometimes even territorial disputes;
  • Lack of adequate communication.

To combat this friction, company leaders should consider the following improvements to the way their product and marketing teams interact:

  • Get the two departments working together as early as possible in the product development process;
  • Identify and agree on the key roles and responsibilities of each based on specific skillsets and capabilities rather than an organizational chart;
  • Keep clear lines of communication throughout and ensure transparency from both sides;
  • Define early which strategic success metrics are most important for all involved.

Ultimately, bringing marketing closer to the product development and management process not only will help businesses design better products and services, but can also help avoid potential Nike-like scandals.

Finally, while loathe to contradict myself I admit that marketers are still liable to make stupid mistakes — after all, we are human — and fail to understand current political and social climates, as Alitalia showed us this weekOpens a new window .

The Italian airline suffered painful backlash for releasing a social media ad that featured a white actor wearing blackface to  portray former President Barack Obama.

You’d think a consumer expert, of all people, would know that blackface will never play well with audiences today. Go figure — and take it as a warning.