With the 2018 NFL season now upon us, it’s no surprise that Nike would launch a new marketing campaign. This year’s campaign, however, positions the company at the center of controversy — and they’re doing it in style.
The video features numerous athletes, some more famous than others. The most recognizable are Serena Williams and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who also narrates the ad.
Readers may recognize Kaepernick:
- From his time leading the 49ers to Superbowl XLVII during the 2012-2013 NFL season.
- As the NFL player who began kneeling during the National Anthem during the 2016-17 season to protest police violence against people of color, and sparked a league-wide player protest movement.
- As the NFL quarterback subsequently blacklisted from playing in the NFL (despite statistically comparable, or statistically worse, players commanding starting QB jobs and eight-figure salaries) after his police brutality protest sparked backlash and was reframed by conservative commentators as “protesting the flag” or otherwise disrespecting the nation’s troops. (Here’s an article including Kaepernick’s rebuttal against that claim.)
- As a target of some of President Trump’s tweets at the height of the protest backlash. (Though Trump attacking Black athletes on Twitter is not at all uncommon.)
- As the founder of the Know Your Rights Camp and foundation.
All of which is to say that Nike made a controversial choice in their new spokesman, but we’re willing to bet that, in the long-term, they made the right call.
Here’s why: While the perpetual outrage machine that is social media guarantees that there will be both strong vocal support and protest around any bold choice a brand might make, it’s not simply a matter of comparing the number of tweets for and against that determines the success of a values-driven PR campaign. There’s a story behind the numbers.
So, social posts like this,
— John Rich (@johnrich) September 3, 2018
Hey #Nike . I don't wear politics or anything related to #ColinKaepernick I no longer buy 5 to 6 pairs per year of Air Monarch Black size 9 anymore either. Just do it? I did. I set my bunions free. #RemovetheSwoosh pic.twitter.com/68UuGMmIaD
— Twentyoz (@Twentyoz_) September 3, 2018
or even this,
First the @NFL forces me to choose between my favorite sport and my country. I chose country. Then @Nike forces me to choose between my favorite shoes and my country. Since when did the American Flag and the National Anthem become offensive? pic.twitter.com/4CVQdTHUH4
— Sean Clancy (@sclancy79) September 3, 2018
are *probably* nothing for Nike to worry about. (Especially since those protesters already bought their Nike gear.)
Even though the company took a financial hit with share prices dipping slightly and the brand’s favorability numbers have dropped in the immediate aftermath of the Kaepernick announcement, this marketing campaign will likely pan out to be a canny move.
The first reason is purely legal — Nike’s contract with the NFL is locked in through 2028. Even if the league balks at the apparel company’s choice of a spokesman who has been critical of police brutality, as well as the NFL and its policies, any resulting antipathy between the organizations likely won’t last a full decade.
The second reason is more interesting and offers a valuable lesson to other brands. Simply put, Nike has recognized a cultural moment and knows its core audience’s place in that moment. Popular response to the trend of police officers using excessive, and often deadly force, against people of color has been building since 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed teen Michael Brown to death in Ferguson, Missouri. It took years of activism (including #BlackLivesMatter and Kaepernick’s own protests) to move the issue from a divisive news story to a more mainstream concern.
Choosing this moment for this campaign, Nike continued its own long-standing tradition of tackling key issues (like ageism, sexism, ableism, and the stigma against those living with HIV/AIDS) as they are just a year or two shy from moving from controversial to conventional. By putting Kaepernick—who has not played professional sports since the 2016—front and center in their marketing efforts, Nike is once again betting that, if popular opinion isn’t already fully with them, it will be soon. It’s a significant gamble, and laudable public stance on a major issue with our nation’s police force. Ultimately, Nike is letting their (core) consumers know exactly where they stand: with them.
They’ve made this bet before, and it’s paid off. We’ll see if this campaign succeeds the same way as previous ads have.
Nike hasn’t only been making waves in football. Just the other week, Nike made a huge impact with their tweet in response to the French Open banning Serena William’s “catsuit” from competition.
— Nike (@Nike) August 25, 2018
With this one tweet, Nike changed the conversation and put the focus back on Serena’s talent, and not on what she was wearing. The subtext was crystal clear: policing women’s bodies is not acceptable.
In their engagement with both athletes, Nike drew a line in the sand that most people wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of. While the brand’s statements feel bold and controversial at first glance, they’re actually hard to argue against without looking ridiculous. Side with the French Open on their treatment of Serena Williams at your own peril — people will sooner dismiss you as square and out of touch than nod in agreement. In this instance, Nike was almost immediately validated in their defense of the tennis superstar, after the officials at the U.S. Open were roundly criticized for sexist mistreatment of Williams during the championship match.
Similarly, one of the most popular responses to reactionaries destroying their Nike gear in protest of Kaepernick’s role in the new ad campaign is that it was a savvy move on the brand’s part to get unfashionable people to stop sporting their brand.
Beyond Nike: Don’t be a leader. Find a popular leader to follow.
Of course, Nike isn’t the only brand that’s staked out a position based on its values. Patagonia has joined the fight against the Trump Administration’s efforts to deregulate protected public lands, CVS stopped selling cigarettes, and Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would stop selling assault rifles in the wake of the Parkland shootings. More and more, consumers are looking for the brands they support to be leaders on issues that they care about.
For other brands who want to take part in this trend, though, it’s important to take note of two important factors. First, the position a company takes must be aligned with your customers’ perception of your brand. Patagonia, for example, is an outdoors outfitter, so it makes sense that they’d fight to protect the great outdoors. Second, and most crucially, you shouldn’t get too far out in front of your supporters on the issue.
Patagonia did not take a strong, vocal position on public lands until there was a broad outcry from people they identified as their customers. Dick’s didn’t ban assault rifles until the Parkland students mobilized against gun violence. And Nike didn’t come out in support of Colin Kaepernick’s activism until it was clear that he was the spark that had ignited a movement. In each of these instances, the central issue was still in the news and very much up for debate, but there was clear momentum on the side the brands chose.
That may sound like a criticism of these brands, but it’s not. It’s savvy; like a quarterback waiting for a receiver to open up before making a pass.