In Branding & Identity, Marketing & Advertising, Marketing Strategy

Is Nike cynically courting controversy in their latest ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick or is this a core value of the brand and company? What may seem like a huge risk for the brand may actually turn out to be a big win. The move could be a way to gain greater exposure among a key demographic. By taking a side in the conversation around Kaepernick, Nike has cemented itself in a political firestorm. What you might not know is that this is nothing new for the brand. In 1998 Phil Knight, when other companies were not touching this idea, committed to standards for affiliated manufacturing facilities, including: minimum wage, air quality, education programs, expansion of microloan program, and factory monitoring that became the best in class industry standard. If you buy that this Kaepernick campaign is within their brand, then the question becomes: at what cost?

For a little context if you haven’t been following… Nike, the NFL’s official uniform provider, chose Colin Kaepernick as the face of their “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign. The activist and former NFL quarterback was pictured in a black-and-white close-up with the quote: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Powerful statement that we all believe in even if we don’t agree with Colin. The image was met with immediate response as it went viral on social media platforms and fans were quick to applaud the athletic powerhouse brand for standing up for the cause. But, the reaction wasn’t all positive.

The day after the campaign released, Nike took a hit in the stock market, with their stocks falling 3.2 percent at Tuesday closing. Investors are getting nervous, and aren’t pleased with the Kaepernick deal. Many have thought the ad campaign is anti-American, leading to a viral hashtag to #BoycottNike and a trend of boycotters lighting their Nike shoes on fire. Ouch! While many companies are carefully taking more risks in their messaging, they largely have stayed away from race relations. Nike, on the other hand, has claimed the fight for racial equality as a tenet of their mission. As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, the political climate of our society is not letting brands off the hook. They have been faced with making a statement or suffering the consequences, and Nike has certainly made a big statement. Will it prove to be the right one?

So, what’s the big deal? Why is Kaepernick such a polarising character? America is more polarized than ever before, so much so that almost anyone who gets a strong positive nerve is going to hit a strong negative nerve. This makes for challenging waters to navigate for corporations looking to maximize raving fans and more opportunities to stand out and to become a target of a turbulent public’s ire. Timing always matters. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Nike took this leap with Kaepernick. With a collusion lawsuit against 32 league owners up for trial, Kaepernick has actually brought a mild simmer back to a raging boil of social media – which can be a good thing and Nike may be using it as a way to keep this conversation at the forefront. 

Cynically, or because it is their mission, Nike has received a huge PR boost, from the public’s overwhelming positive reaction to Kaepernick as the face of the “Just Do It” campaign. Despite closing the stock market with a loss, Nike’s campaign created $43 million of media buzz within 24 hours in the marketplace of ideas that Nike cares more about for the long term.

One of the reasons Nike can get away with this bold of a political statement is that they know their customers and they know their business. This is not just a political frenzy for them, this is a business decision that was made carefully and with purpose. Kaepernick, even though he’s not on the field, is still one of their top sellers of merchandise. He became the NFL’s top selling jersey following his protest.

Nike also know that two-thirds of their consumer base is younger than 35 and ethnically diverse. They see this as an opportunity to reach the influencers and tastemakers that they believe will overpower those that decide to protest and not buy Nike product in the short term. Ultimately, Nike is betting on the fans of this decision to maintain and become lifelong supporters, while the short-term anger of some will fade as the next social media controversy arises.

Many other brands have seen more careful political activism work in their favor. 2017 sparked a new wave of brands taking stances on political issues, and getting involved in arguments that they would have shied away from a few years ago. 2017’s Super Bowl was no different. We saw brands like Coke and Airbnb using their ad time to make statements about their versions of America. Now, Nike is using its massive platform to do the same only a bit bolder fitting our times.  

So far Nike’s plan is working, as they have gained major global attention for Kaepernick and his cause. As USA Today reports, this campaign could, in fact, become the catapult that Kaepernick needs to take his issue and make real change on a large scale. Getting political is always a risk for brands, with social media proving a quick and fierce judgement, but it’s become almost a necessity for brands to get involved in issues. According to a new study by Sprout Social, the majority of consumers want their brands to make their political views known, as they will make buying decisions based on those brand views.

This play comes at a time when Nike needed a bit of a boost in their credibility following a misconduct scandal earlier this year. Some have already called out that this move feels very much like using politics to get a leg up in public opinion. But, to play devil’s advocate, it could be a way for them to get back to their roots and redefine, and reinvigorate their corporate social responsibility that was set up by Phil Knight all those years ago. Perhaps this is a case of practice what you preach and now we will all be watching to see what Nike does from here.   

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