Nike vs Trump: The marcomms industry is swooning with envy

On one side we have the most famous brand in the world, with a carefully curated image of the disruptor speaking directly to a generation of super fans who lap up every new marketing message. And in the other corner, there's Nike.

Nike's marketing team are betting that the brand won't be negatively affected at the tills (Image via Franklin Heijnen on Flickr)
Nike's marketing team are betting that the brand won't be negatively affected at the tills (Image via Franklin Heijnen on Flickr)

By endorsing Colin Kaepernick, Nike has co-opted the tale of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback into its own corporate backstory.

#TakeAKnee began when the player began kneeling during the pre-game singing of the national anthem. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour," said Kaepernick.

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This message is now the basis of Nike’s 30th anniversary campaign, which in marketing terms carries all the elements of the brand’s best work: mixing brilliantly simple execution with a politically charged message, amplified across a global media platform.

It blurs the line between the political and the commercial in a way that makes the marketing industry sigh with a mix of adoration and envy.

And on one level, Kaepernick is just one more face on a line of idea-led merchandise, with his own wall in Nike Town: Tiger Woods, but with a more authentic message.

But this feels different, for two reasons: Donald Trump and the NFL.

By backing Kaepernick, Nike is going up against the President of the United States, the NFL and their – very large – shared constituency of white men.

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These are the real targets of this campaign and both have the power to hurt Nike – not just in the pretendscape of social media, but financially.

By wrapping his message in the Stars and Stripes, Kapaernick was inviting a debate about what it is to be American, a question to which many of Trump’s supporters have a chillingly narrow definition.

So when the President went in to Twitter battle over #TakeAKnee, he was just playing to his base, the people he knew would take offence, a few of which are now burning their Nike trainers on Facebook Live.

Famously, Michael Jordan, the original Nike proxy, used to worry about the buying habits of right-wing white folk: "Republicans buy sneakers too" is the quote that came to define him, and by extension Nike: a bit radical, but not so much that it hurts the bottom line.

Jordan denies ever saying it, but it felt true, and that’s why it stuck.

More nuanced but just as risky is Nike’s decision to make capital from taking on the NFL.

Not for nothing are the franchise owners of the league known as the Billionaire Boys Club. This is sport’s one per cent, the ‘Them in Them and Us’.

And they are the same owners who OK’d Nike’s vast apparel contract that sees every player in the league wearing the Swoosh until 2028.

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When it reaches London the layers of cultural complexity are washed away to leave just another big event moment for the sport-going, non-sport fans so prized by rights holders seeking new markets.

Given their famous media savvy, it’s inconceivable that Nike’s marketing team were not alive to the second bounce of the Kaepernick story.

They will have modelled the potential outcomes and their bet is that the numbers work.

So, this is not Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong or Justin Gatlin – previous Nike-constructed outlaws whose story went bad and had to be wrangled by the crisis team.

This feels riskier, and by definition more interesting.

Richard Gillis is an author, journalist and managing partner of Cake sport and entertainment agency

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