What Republicans can learn from Nike

In the mid-1990s, Nike suffered a blow to their brand when they were held responsible for using child labor to stitch soccer balls. As a result, their share of the footwear market dropped from 55 percent in 1996 to 39 percent in 2000. Nike could have slid into oblivion; instead, they transformed their reputation, reinvigorated their brand, and won over the next generation.

Nike didn’t change what they stood for.  Instead, they sharpened their appeal, championing the same “Just Do It” values that the Republican Party does.  Nike didn’t adopt a “liberal” agenda that people are victims, that they have no personal power, that they need to be coddled.  They celebrated the power in every individual; the self-discipline it takes to discover and harness the power in every woman, and every man, of every ethnicity. 

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The Republican Party can learn a great deal from Nike. American support for core Republican principles—like individual freedom, personal responsibility, innovation, entrepreneurship, and self-reliance—is at an all-time high.  Yet the Republican brand has been badly damaged.  According to a recent College Republican National Committee report, the GOP is now seen as old-fashioned, anti-women, anti-Hispanic, anti-gay, anti-middle class, and anti-environment.

Based on their core principles, Republicans should comprise two-thirds of all voters, yet only 28 to 33 percent of young voters have a favorable view of the party. Over 50 percent have a negative view. To survive, the Republican Party needs to take a good hard look at why.

Young voters, empowered by technologies that give them more choices than their parents, are fiercely dedicated to personal freedom, entrepreneurship, and finding their own path. They don’t look to corporations or government as sources of lifetime support. They want three primary qualities in their candidates: intelligence, hard work, and responsibility. Many don’t believe Republican candidates have those qualities.

Hispanics, blacks, and women are today’s rising entrepreneurs. According to the CRNC report, 64 percent of Hispanic and 58 percent of black respondents say they plan to start their own business. Women now start more businesses than men; their incomes are rising faster; and they decide how 73 percent of the family dollars are spent.

Today’s voters don’t believe the economy and environment need to be at odds.  But when they are, more 18 to 29 year-olds say environmental protection should take priority (49 percent) than say economic growth should take priority (45 percent). The failure of the GOP to offer a climate policy of its own makes a big government approach a self-fulfilling prophecy. Eighty percent of voters under age 35 support “President Obama’s climate change plan” – even though most have no idea what’s in that plan.

Only 3 percent of young voters name immigration as their top concern.  They see it as a second-tier issue that Congress should deal with quickly, then move on.  They want to secure the border against illegal entry, but welcome the guest workers we need, and provide an opportunity to those already here to contribute to America’s prosperity and their own.

Young voters believe the opportunity to marry is fundamental.  “Opposition to same-sex marriage constituted a ‘deal breaker,’” according to CRNC.  Half of those who supported same-sex marriage “said that they would probably or definitely not vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on same-sex marriage, even if they were in agreement on taxes, defense, immigration, and spending."

The Republican Party can learn from Nike that America’s dedication to freedom, entrepreneurship, and prosperity is as deep as ever.  But sometimes it means different things.

Today, freedom means the opportunity to start a business, innovate, create value, and grow prosperous, without sacrificing people or the environment.

It also means the opportunity to marry, start a family, earn our citizenship, serve our country, and access clean air and water.

American politics is in the beginning stages of an historic realignment that will transform both major parties. The Republican Party can reinvigorate its brand by following the example of Nike.

Shireman is president and CEO of Future 500, a company that bills itslef as "The bridge between corporations and NGOs."