Worth the sacrifice: Why Nike was willing to risk backlash to embrace Colin Kaepernick

Consumers are divided on Nike's 30th anniversary campaign for Just Do It. But communications executives say it will place the sportswear brand on the right side of history -- and in the good graces of its diverse customer base.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

On Monday, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback turned activist Colin Kaepernick tweeted a black-and-white Nike ad of his own face emblazoned with the statement, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

By fronting its 30th anniversary campaign for the Just Do It slogan with the athlete, Nike isn’t sacrificing everything by any stretch. In fact, PR pros say the commemorative campaign will go down as one of the boldest, riskiest, and, some even say, one of the smartest plays in sports marketing history for taking a politically charged social stance.

In the argument over whether Kaepernick is an unpatriotic American or a trailblazer, the global sportswear brand is placing itself squarely in his camp.

"Nike is essentially telling people to pick a side with this campaign, and that risks alienating a large chunk of the country," says John Maroon, president of Maroon PR. "Politics in this country right now is very night and day, one side or the other, and so this is incredibly risky. It’s like Nike has made a clear-cut decision that this is our customer base, and no longer this group of people."

While Maroon notes it’s yet to be determined what impact the campaign will have on Nike’s bottom line, he says the company earned high marks for boldness.

"It will be interesting to see if the people who love this campaign end up buying more Nike products or if the people who hate it stop buying Nike," he says, "but you have to tip your cap to them. It takes fearlessness to make a controversial figure the face of your campaign."

Kaepernick became a controversial figure during the 2016 NFL season, when he began getting down on bended knee during the pre-game national anthem in protest over police brutality against African-Americans. Other NFL players soon followed suit. Early last season, President Donald Trump lambasted Kaepernick for what he characterized as disrespectful behavior to the country and said that the NFL "should have suspended him."

Left off a roster since the end of the 2016 schedule, Kaepernick is suing the NFL. His lawsuit alleges the organization and its 32 team owners colluded to keep him unemployed "based on partisan political provocation by the executive branch of our government."

Despite not being under center, Kaepernick had an oversized presence during Thursday night’s season opener between the world champion Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons. Nike ran its two-minute ad narrated by Kaepernick during the broadcast, which features him alongside the likes of NBA superstar LeBron James, tennis champion Serena Williams, and New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

The ad, which Nike released a day earlier on YouTube, has surpassed 10 million views.

"This is what makes this movement from Nike even bolder: that its position appears to be in conflict with the NFL, of which Nike is a major sponsor," says Kirk Stewart, founder and CEO of KTStewart, former executive director of APCO Worldwide, and Nike’s former global VP of corporate comms from 1997 to 2005. "You don’t get to where you are without taking some risks and being bold and taking a stance."

He adds that Nike is "really the only brand that I can think of that could actually take this issue on and sustain the criticism that I am sure they knew was going to come."

Early hit to stock price, brand
The resulting firestorm included protesters taking to social media and burning their Nike shoes. The hashtag #NikeBoycott trended on Twitter.

Yet so, too, did hashtags in support of the campaign like #ImWithKap and #TeamNike. Athletes on Nike’s payroll showed their support, as did those who aren’t, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a top face of Under Armour, who liked an image from the campaign.

The commander-in-chief added fuel to the fire when he tweeted on Wednesday: "Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!" On Friday morning, Trump simply tweeted, "What was Nike thinking?"

In the day after the new campaign was revealed, Nike’s shares closed down more than 3%, though they made up much of the lost ground in the days that followed.

The brand has also taken a hit in favorability and purchase intent, according to online pollster Morning Consult. Nike’s favorability dropped 34 points, from 76% favorable and 7% unfavorable to 60% favorable and 24% unfavorable, according to a poll of 8,000 Americans. Before the campaign launch, about half of respondents said they were "absolutely certain" or "very likely" to buy Nike products, but that figure has dropped to 39%. The steepest drop was among baby boomers, whose purchasing consideration dipped from 38% absolute certainty to 28%.

Some PR executives dislike the campaign for stoking divisiveness in an already fractured nation, both culturally and politically.

"It is a mistake for the brand, as it unnecessarily alienates a large segment of consumers, whether 30%, 50%, or 70%," contends Ronn Torossian, CEO and founder of 5W Public Relations. "Conservative or liberal or Republican or Democrat, I would think Nike would want them wearing their sneakers."

He notes that Just Do It has been a non-political slogan, but Kaepernick has become a political figure, and the brand could have picked a frontman who appeals to conservatives or both sides of the aisle.

"Instead, they’re stepping into a political fight they don’t need to be in," contends Torossian.

The evolution of Just Do It
Other experts note that consumers want brands to stand up on issues that others won’t touch. They also say Nike is playing the long game, both in terms of demonstrating loyalty to athletes rather than large organizations such as the NFL. (The brand also stood by Tiger Woods during his marital infidelity when other brands dropped him).

PR pros also say Nike wants to be on the right side of history.

"They knew they’d alienate, but they’ve taken a side and that side is with the large percentage of people in the U.S. and in the world that believe in racial equality," says Natalie Boden, founder and president of Boden. "Considering its core target audience is the most racially diverse in U.S. history and that Nike has historically supported diversity and inclusion, they will most likely gain from their decision."

She adds that Nike has an opportunity to turn the anniversary push into a "brilliant, powerful CSR and community relations campaign."

As part of its contract with Kaepernick, Nike is donating money to the athlete’s Know Your Rights campaign, which aims to raise awareness of "higher education, self-empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios" and includes workshops across the U.S.

Boden says Nike should look at other ways to support underserved, diverse communities.

Experts point out that the campaign is modernizing and even making Nike’s Just Do It slogan more relevant. "We’re just seeing the beginning of the 30th anniversary of Just Do It," says Shawn McBride, EVP of sports at Ketchum Sports and Entertainment. "We’re going to see a lot more play out in the weeks and months ahead and how big a role Kaepernick will continue to play."  

"What is really interesting about this campaign is that Nike has agreed to give to Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights campaign," he explains. "It is going to allow him to take his activism to a whole other level."

Google VP of comms and public affairs Corey duBrowa, who worked at Nike from 1994 to 2000, sees the campaign as "the latest chapter in the company’s history of building a brand capable of transcending sport in favor of humanity."

He points out the Nike has run campaigns before pushing for social change. He cites two efforts from 1995: If You Let Me Play,  which put girls’ rights to play sports in the spotlight, and another that featured an HIV-positive gay man, marathoner Rick Munoz.

"Just Do It is timeless, a clarion call flexible and elastic enough to encompass a variety of personal empowerment stories," says duBrowa. "It is enduring and has given powerful life to Kaepernick's mission to do something with his gifts bigger than his chosen sport."

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in