Nike’s controversial decision to use former NFL star Colin Kaepernick to front its ‘Just Do It’ campaign has been widely backed by the UK communications industry despite dividing public opinion in the US.
A PRWeek poll of 146 readers revealed that 95 per cent believe Nike was right to use Kaepernick as one of three sports stars to front the campaign, despite the controversy it would inevitably cause.
PR and communications leaders hailed the move as "courageous", "socially relevant" and "unprecedented" – with one CEO suggesting it was the polar opposite of that disastrous Kendall Jenner campaign for Pepsi.
Kaepernick is the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who inspired nationwide protests against police brutality by kneeling for the US national anthem before NFL matches in 2016. It was a protest that was criticised by US president Donald Trump and sections of NFL fans. It also cost Kaepernick his career as all NFL clubs refused to sign him when his 49ers contract expired.
Kaepernick is one of three Nike ambassadors to front the 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ – alongside tennis star Serena Williams and skateboarder Lacey Baker – but is the most controversial.
PR and communications leaders speaking to PRWeek have largely hailed the risky move.
Ready 10 founder David Fraser said he cannot remember a brand "ever being braver than this".
"It's simply not the case of backing a winning horse or going with the wind," Fraser said. "Millions will object and they will lose customers. And they are going head on with the establishment and a behemoth in the NFL. Bravo Nike."
Pagefield chief executive Oliver Foster told PRWeek that it was unprecedented for a brand to take such a bold and courageous stand.
"Particularly on an issue that risks isolating scores of customers and a very thin-skinned Commander-in-Chief," he said. "Instead, most tend to champion ‘safe’ issues or, worse, take a tone-deaf approach a la Pepsi and Kendall Jenner."
He points out that Nike has long championed African American athletes and causes, including Williams as recently as the French Open, where she wore a controversial Nike catsuit outfit that was subsequently banned.
"The challenge for Nike now is to build on the energy it has created and doing so in a positive, inclusive way," he added. "By adopting the moral high ground, Nike will also need to be prepared for greater scrutiny, with employment practices, supply chains and environmental issues now all under the microscope even more than they would have been before for a company of its scale."
The move to use Kaepernick, a divisive figure in Nike’s largest market, does not come without risk and has divided opinion in the US, with some consumers venting their their anger on social media.
The #BoycottNike has been trending on Twitter since the campaign was leaked on the NFL star's Twitter feed, with some people threatening to burn Nike shoes and clothing.
Pitch head of PR Chris Allen told PRWeek that although the campaign will resonate with "those kids on the East and West coast who want a brand that is about more than just sport", it runs the risk of marginalising a significant part of its US customer base.
"I think Nike have probably fallen foul of prioritising their target audience and forgetting the opinions of those who actually wear their product – the swathes of middle America (many of whom are in Trump heartlands) that make up much of the 45 per cent of Nike’s annual revenue that comes from North America."
There’s no doubt that this was a calculated risk and a lesson for other brands to follow, Riot Communications managing director Preena Gadher said.
"I don't think this will cost them in the long term, and since big brands usually outlast politicians, we will remember Nike for having had the guts to take a stand in the post-Trump era," she said.
"At a time when politics feels polarised, there is an argument to say a brand shouldn't make it more so; but brands like Nike are powerful, have longevity, and can change the way people think about an issue, for the better."
‘Nike will outlast silly shoe burners’
It’s a point that Ronke Lawal, a PR and communications consultant at Ariatu Public Relations, agrees with.
She believes the fallout will be only isolated to "certain pockets" of Nike’s consumer base.
"Adidas [unwittingly] might become the brand of choice for white supremacy, but these people will stand by their ignorance regardless if all of the facts are presented to them," she said.
"They might lose customers, but overall I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many people posting the same image on Instagram with Colin’s face on it. It shows me that Nike is doing something that will overall be stronger and last longer than those silly people burning Nike trainers."
Foster goes further and believes the campaign could inspire others to follow.
"For some brands, taking a stand could soon become a moral – and commercial – imperative," he said.
In other words: ‘believe in something’ even if it means ‘sacrificing’ some of your customer base.