A Tale of Two Crises: Adidas, Nike, and the Reputational Cost of Inaction

Allison Horton

May 3rd, 2023

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. And for Adidas and Nike, it was the season of comms nightmares.

In Fall 2022, the world’s two largest sportswear manufacturers were both dealing with the fallout of antisemitic remarks from their respective brand ambassadors and footwear partners. On October 27, Nike-sponsored NBA player Kyrie Irving tweeted a link to an antisemitic film, and doubled down the next week by refusing to say he didn’t hold antisemitic beliefs. Adidas Yeezy partner Ye, formerly Kanye West, made a series of antisemitic and white-supremicist comments throughout October.

Although both brands ultimately terminated these relationships, Nike announced its decision within days while Adidas waited weeks. Putting aside any business or contractual complexities that might have affected Adidas’s timing, we thought it’d be worthwhile to compare readership on news about the two brands to see what we can learn from a crisis comms perspective. (By readership, we mean how many people read articles, aka unique visitors.)

As any comms veteran could have guessed, Adidas’s drawn-out response resulted in more reputational harm than Nike’s swift and decisive action. Let’s dive into the data.

Nike’s swift response to a crisis shielded the brand from a barrage of negative publicity

Kyrie Irving started making headlines on October 29 when the Brooklyn Nets condemned his tweets, but readership really picked up on November 4 when the team suspended Irving. The next day, Nike announced the partnership was suspended, canceling an upcoming shoe release. 

That November 5th statement was decisive and unambiguous: “At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8.”

Readership on Nike headlines spiked that day, and then…the story pretty much fizzled out for Nike. The brand was still mentioned in a series of follow up coverage, and Nike headlines spiked in readership again when the partnership was formally terminated a month later. But Nike’s initial statement left little room for interpretation or controversy, nipping this crisis in the bud.

Let’s contrast this with Adidas to see what could have befallen Nike had they been less clear or moved more slowly.

Adidas’s drawn-out, ambiguous response led to critical news coverage read by over 136 million 

The catalyst for Adidas’s crisis came on October 3, when Ye wore a shirt with the white-supremacist phrase “White Lives Matter” during a Yeezy event at Paris Fashion Week, sparking an outcry from the media.

On October 6, Adidas released a statement that the relationship was under review. Reading the statement in retrospect, it’s no wonder why Adidas was embroiled in negative coverage over the following weeks:

Adidas has always been about creativity, innovation and supporting athletes and artists to achieve their vision. The Adidas Yeezy partnership is one of the most successful collaborations in our industry’s history. We are proud of our team that has worked tirelessly throughout our collaboration with Ye and the iconic products that were born from it. We also recognize that all successful partnerships are rooted in mutual respect and shared values. After repeated efforts to privately resolve the situation, we have taken the decision to place the partnership under review. We will continue to co-manage the current product during this period.

Even if Adidas was buying time to understand the legal and financial implications of termination, perhaps some specificity might have helped. Adidas Yeezy is “under review” yet the product is still being “co-managed”? Adidas acknowledges that a partnership requires “shared values,” and yet does not condemn the atrocious values Ye put forth? If you were wondering what this statement signals about Adidas’s own values, you weren’t alone. 

Between this statement’s release on October 6 and when Adidas announced the relationship was terminated on October 24, over 10 million people read articles about this story:

For over two weeks, Adidas exposed itself to reputational harm as more negative stories came out about Ye’s offensive and erratic behavior: antisemitic posts that had his account blocked from social platforms; calls from the ADL for Adidas to drop Ye; and staying “silent” while brands like Balenciaga and Vogue stopped working with the artist.

And readers were invested. In the week Adidas announced the partnership was terminated, the story reached nearly 44 million people.

To be fair, if Adidas had released a response sooner, they still would have been mentioned in much of this coverage about Ye; the brand was inextricably linked to him. But we’d venture to guess there’d be fewer headlines like “Kanye made Adidas billions. Now he could cost the company its reputation” (90K readers) or “Yeezy Resale Market Unmoved, For Now…All Eyes on Adidas” (195K readers).

Scaling the y-axis by the same number of readers in the above graphs, it’s clear just how differently Adidas and Nike’s crises played out, despite relatively similar starting points.

Better data can amplify the voice of comms in the “war room”

The data showed Nike and Adidas’s crises were picking up steam. But what if a crisis story didn’t reach too many eyeballs? Or what if it did but was starting to fizzle out? 

These three different scenarios warrant three different comms plans. And because neither potential reach or social engagement are correlated with actual readership, it’s not enough to look at clip counts and tweets alone.

Data on how many people are actually reading these stories can steer strategy and make a stronger case to key executives…and maybe save a few late nights in the process.

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