Nike cuts corners on naming and pays the price

Nike is no stranger to controversy surrounding the brand but this time, it is self-inflicted due to a lack of research.

Launched to celebrate St Patricks Day, Nike’s ‘Black and Tan’ sneaker has been labelled insensitive and offensive. What should have been a clever brand gesture has turned into a crisis management campaign for the shoe giant.

Inspired by the famous Guinness and “half and half” Guinness mix concoctions, the Nike SB trainer has a black-leather upper with tan elements, creamy swoosh and an image of a pint inside.

The name ‘black and tan’ is descriptive of the product but to the intended audience, it is more like an insult. To most Irish, the ‘Black and Tans’ were a violent British paramilitary unit that terrorised the Irish in the 1920s – certainly not a positive association for the shoes or the brand.

What was designed to celebrate Irish culture, has actullay showed Nike’s ignorance of the Irish market. Nike claims to have done their usual legal searching for ownership of the name but they obviously didn’t check for perceptive associations and cultural issues – worse still, a quick internet search would’ve highlighted the issue.

The process of finding the right brand name is rarely easy and is often undervalued by companies. So often, I’ve witnessed decisions being based on subjective opinion but you can’t shortcut basic linguistic and cultural checking.

Legal testing is essential, but this needs to be coupled with an emotional understanding of how your audience will react to the name – especially when you are targeting different countries and cultures.

For a global brand like Nike, there is no excuse.  This is not an obscure local reference.

Nike has since apologised profusely, but they are the first, and probably won’t be the last.

The Guardian newspaper points out that “Ben & Jerry’s released a ‘Black and Tan’ ice-cream in 2006, Reebok’s Incubus trainer for women shared the same name as a sexually assaulting demon, and there was fury when Umbro named a trainer Zyklon – recalling the substance used in the Nazi gas chambers.

However, the lesson in this for any brand is the importance of stress testing names across different cultures and markets, especially with the intended audience. It might seem like a painful process, but the right investment upfront can save significant costs and protect the reputation of the brand in the long-term.

Michael Hughes
Director of Brand Strategy

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