If there’s one thing that riles up America, it’s sports. Coming in as a close second is change of any kind. When you put them together you’re bound to make some serious waves. So why did NASCAR decide to change up their sport and risk losing a large portion of their audience?

In an interview with Marketing Expert and Brand Strategist Marcus Collins, I explore NASCAR’s recent ban on the confederate flag, the organization’s rebranding strategy, and how other companies can follow in their footsteps.

Q: Why do you think NASCAR took a stance against racism when doing nothing probably would have been easier and possibly even more profitable considering their audience demographic?

Collins: NASCAR is interesting. They have what we think of as their core audience who are committed to the sport and are associated with the South, a geographical area that comes with its own social and cultural characteristics. The confederate flag is an artifact of the culture in a lot of ways.

But there are a lot of fans who aren’t congruent with the identity that NASCAR puts out and actually hide the fact that they like the sport because they don’t want to be associated with this aspect of it. In the past, NASCAR has made efforts to be more digestible to a larger market. Not to downplay their altruism, but from a business perspective, they want to be on the right side of history, be forward-thinking, and finding new audiences.

George Floyd’s death was a pivotal moment in history. The country won’t be the same as it was before he was murdered, and brands are thinking about what they want their legacy to be and how people will accept them as a sport in a post-Floyd world.

And, I mean, are the fans that are pissed about this really the fans you want to represent your brand?

Q: As much as I want to believe some corporations are actually just doing the right thing, do you think part (or all) of the reason is tactical? Do you think NASCAR is seeing their “traditional” audience dying out and they’re trying to get ahead of it? And if they are doing this for the profits, does it matter if it means a change in the right direction?

Collins: I think about IPO: intent, perspective, outcome. Sometimes people have really good intentions but don’t understand the perspective of the people impacted by their decisions and the outcome may harm or be unfavorable. Or sometimes people might have selfish motives or the wrong intentions, but the outcome of their decision can end up benefiting those it affects. What’s the IPO here?

NASCAR knows its audience is a wider demographic than just white southern confederates. In the past, they’ve had hip hop artists like Ludacris perform at their events, which you wouldn’t think is for the people showing up with confederate flags. These acts of inclusion have an outcome that is beneficial for the community. On top of that, when companies take a stand like this they’re adding more coal to the cultural fire. Every new story that hits the media about racial equality will continue the BLM cultural movement. And NASCAR is backing up their words with actions, which is the most impactful piece of the puzzle. They didn’t give in to their drivers who protested about the flag ban and they immediately launched an FBI investigation into the alleged hate crime that happened recently.

Q: Will brands whose consumer base is white conservatives end up surviving and thriving if they pivot to a more liberal stance?

Collins: It’s hard to say. Whatever you are, be who you are. Be what the brand is and believes in. And in being that you have to appreciate and accept the consequences that come with it. I’d rather you be honest than placate and pander to the dominant thought. Performative marketing won’t work. If a brand really wants to make a change it will show in its actions.

Brands are like humans—we amorphized them and identify with them. We think about our experience with brands as relationships because we want to connect with them. If a company is giving us lip service right now with no follow-up action, they look fake and they’re breaking connections. And a lot of companies are scared to act because they don’t want to lose that conservative consumer base, but they don’t realize they’ll lose both if they make a statement and then don’t act. The middle of the road is no longer a safe space for you.

The volume of the tension is so high consumers are looking at everybody. Every transaction is on the consumers’ terms right now and there’s a massive opportunity for brands to form real connections right now.

Q: Words with no action…sounds like the NFL. They now have a social justice initiative to address racial inequality within the sport. Is this an example of performative marketing, since they say they want to fix what’s wrong yet they won’t apologize to Kapernick. From a marketing perspective, why do you think the NFL hasn’t apologized & paid retribution to Kapernick for ending his career?

Collins: Well, I’m not in their marketing meetings so I can’t give you a definitive answer here. But I do know no one will accept the NFL’s apology until they do right by Kapernick. They have apologized for being slow to take on racial injustices—why aren’t they saying his name though? It will never be cool and they will never be able to come back from their bigotry without the repentance that is necessary. Say his name. Apologize to him.

If we go back to IPO, their intent and perspective are not true enough to realize the only way to reach a positive outcome is by saying his name. Without that none of the other stuff, they’re doing matters. As humans we want to forgive, we love redemption and a comeback. People will respond to retribution and the first step is to apologize to everyone you’ve wrongs—Kapernick being top of the list.

Q: How can consumers hold brands accountable for hollow statements of support and a completely white leadership team?

Collins: Discourse on social media. Consumers can and should use their voices. Your news feeds shape your consumer habits and which brands you rock with. People want to know what brands their friend groups and circles are aligning with so they can get on board too.

Culture is formed based on questions we ask ourselves subconsciously like, “Do people like me do something like this?” And brands are always listening to the negotiation process that’s happening implicitly or explicitly on social media platforms.