Nike broke new ground by partnering with controversial former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a new ad campaign. Perhaps no other major brand has deliberately embraced controversy so blatantly. Kaepernick roused loathing from some people, including President Donald Trump, by taking a knee during National Anthems before games. Critics say Kaepernick disrespected the flag; advocates say he was standing up for social justice.
Some PR and marketing experts think the Nike ad is marketing suicide because it challenges powerful political forces; others consider it a brilliant way to reach millennials, the core customer base for Nike.
Kaepernick narrates Nike’s new Just Do It television ad and appears in the spot along with other athletes. A companion print ad features his face along with the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Most brands would never dream of partnering with anyone so divisive. Nike is different.
Kaepernick hasn’t played since 2016. The NFL blames his lackluster quarterback performance. His sympathizers say team owners blacklisted him. Kaepernick is now suing the NFL, accusing its owners of colluding to keep him out of the league.
Just Burn It
Not surprisingly, the ad prompted outrage in some quarters. Some people on social media advocated a boycott of Nike products. They burned their Nike shoes and apparel and cut the brand’s swoosh logo off their clothing, and publicized their deeds on Twitter, with the hashtag #JustBurnIt. The company’s shares closed down 3.2 percent the day after the ad was revealed on Twitter, the biggest one-day drop since April.
The ad campaign may also increase tensions with the NFL. Nike is the official uniform and sideline apparel supplier for the NFL, and the league recently extended the partnership through 2028.
Nike scored more than $43 million worth of media exposure within 24 hours after the ad was revealed, Bloomberg reported, citing Apex Marketing Group. The vast majority of that exposure was neutral to positive. Some marketing experts say the enormous media exposure outweighs the risk of angering some customers.
Nike Knows its Customers
Observers say Nike didn’t just embrace Kaepernick because of his views. Its market research indicates that most of its customers side with the former quarterback. Its customers are young, ethnically diverse and politically liberal. African-Americans and Hispanics are heavily represented in their customer base, Caucasians are underrepresented compared to the overall population. They’re slightly more likely to call themselves Democrats rather than Republicans.
Aligning itself with controversial figures also matches Nike’s image.
“This is right on the money for Nike. They stand for this irreverent, rebellious attitude. In this case, it’s reinforcing the brand,” Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of strategy consulting firm Vivaldi, told Reuters.
Reputational Risks of Taking a Controversial Stand
Research shows that more Americans want corporations to take a stand on political and social issues. Brands can increase sales and customer loyalty by taking a stand but only if it’s on the right issue. They can also inspire boycotts and alienate customers. PR and marketing experts urge companies to think long and hard before taking a stand on a political issue. Their advice: Don’t take a position just for the sake of it. Examine the brand’s values, and analyze your customer base and other stakeholders. They also urge companies to make sure their own house is in order and review their corporate records before taking a stand in order to avoid charges of hypocrisy.
Nike has suffered negative news coverage that report poor treatment of employees in sweatshop-like conditions at contract factories overseas. High-level executive resigned this year over allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. Women said they were passed over for promotions, marginalized at meetings and subject to unwanted sexual advances. They said the company’s human resources department brushed off their complaints.
By embracing the social justice/U.S. flag controversy, Nike may succeed in deflecting attention from its other PR issues.
The controversy is likely to persist for some time because of the Kaepernick legal case against the NFL, the deep pockets and audacious marketing attitude of Nike, and the doggedness of President Trump when he believes that pounding an issue can solidify his political base.
The results won’t be known for some time – and will be measured in changes in Nike sales, stock price and corporate reputation months or even years from now.
Bottom Line: Nike intentionally ran toward controversy with its ad featuring former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, better known for his National Anthem displays than any triumphs on the field. Many customers promptly vowed to boycott Nike, but most experts say the company knows how to win this PR and marketing game.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.