Nike & Kaepernick – Cynical or Sincere?

This last week I have been involved in more conversations relating to American football than in my entire life – why – simply because of Nike and its decision to position Colin Kaepernick as a brand ambassador. Why are we British be so interested? Well for those unaware, (if there are any) Kaepernick was the instigator of the protest which led to some of the leading NFL players not rising for the US National anthem, but rather ‘taking the knee’ as it became known. Something which was designed to raise attention about the treatment of young black Americans by various police forces, caused meltdown with President Trump, with him calling it unpatriotic and in so doing it created a backlash from individuals and institutions against those players who participated.

So the question of why Nike decided to link itself so overtly with Kaepernick, has caused major comment and also led to anti-Nike activity with individuals seen burning Nike clothes or cutting out the NIKE logo. I even saw one film, which showed an older white male throwing a pair of trainers away and saying he would never buy Nike again, without realizing that the trainers he was discarding were not Nike. But putting all this aside, there are several interesting questions; namely whether this is an illustration of Nike’s sincere ‘social purpose’, or simply a cynical marketing ploy and ultimately whether it has been successful.

To consider this, we need to set a few things in place. Firstly, Nike is a global brand and as such anything it does will be influential and attention grabbing. In taking this decision it also decided to put itself in a space firmly at odds with President Trump, his supporters and even the NFL, which is also in a protracted legal situation with Kaepernick and others.

In my view the adoption of Kaepernick is not a cynical bandwagon jump, primarily because Nike has always been in the space of encouraging young athletes and people to not accept constraints, either individually or socially. ‘Just do it’ has become, not just about encouraging people to try a sporting ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ is, but equally not to accept societal norms which they don’t agree with. The endorsement of action aimed at addressing apparent institutional racism, is directly in line with the brand values which Nike have invested in and demonstrated for years.

Photo source: Yahoo Finance 18.09.2018 – 12pm CET – Live version here

So how has it affected them? Initially Nike Shares dropped by 2.3 % to $80.29 but then after labor day holiday and trading started again, rose to a record almost $83, showing that value-wise, an initial re-action by jittery institutional investors around what a boycott might mean, was countered by the realisation of Nike’s adeptness in understanding its customer base. This is born out by the fact that in most cases boycotts are limited in time and impact if there is a sufficiently good understanding of your customer base, which Nike certainly have.

In marketing terms, this campaign measures as an undoubted success. The awareness measure of the Nike ad is exceptionally high, illustrated by the fact that it is a talked about subject from Birmingham Alabama (where their mayor is recruiting Kaepernick to be their quarterback) to Birmingham University business School in the UK, where I discussed it on Thursday at their responsible business conference.  Research done in the USA showed that within 48 hours of the advert running, more than two-thirds of Americans new that the ad was for Nike, with very little confusion with rival brands. This is what companies want from ‘personality’ led campaigns, so in that regard this was a huge success.

Bloomberg also ran its own estimation that the resulting coverage and reaction created $43 million worth of attention in less than one day. Any company would consider that a rip-roaring success.

Another critical thing to appreciate about Nike is that unlike many other brands, its target market is very age related, with more than two-thirds of its customers being under 35, (the so-called Millennials). If you add in the fact that Millennials will surpass baby boomers as the largest living adult generation next year (a shock to me when I appreciated that fact), and that 44% of this group are people of colour, you have an undeniable rationale for why this association is so right for Nike.

If you go further, the post-millennials, or Generation Z’s as they are known, are 48% non-white, which equates to more than half of American children under the age of 10. Do you think Nike care if a 50 year old white man says he will never by Nike again? Of course not. As a result, Nike know that the largest and fastest growing segment of their market, looks in the mirror and sees and thinks itself like Colin Kaepernick.

What this symbolizes is that one of the most powerful brands on the planet is perfectly content in the knowledge that their thinking is absolutely aligned with those who buy their wares today and will do tomorrow. Nike has no concern about standing up against the so called most powerful man in the World and indeed much of corporate America which shows high degrees of negativity towards them at present, partially because of the demographic in leadership and ownership, but also I suspect because it puts them in a quandary as to how they should be reacting.

So my final view on assessing this is firstly that this is no cynical marketing ploy, it is absolutely aligned with Nike’s social purpose and the knowledge of the interests of its customer base. This was a moment of brand inspiration which Nike have already gained huge advantage from because they have re-ignited awareness in their customers and built excitement into their brand. It acts as a positioning statement against President Trump, thereby creating a rebellious ‘attitude’ within corporate America and with liberal college educated Americans has been highly effective at raising awareness and positive sentiment. Yes, there are some who will never buy Nike again, but it genuinely doesn’t matter.

There was nothing ‘just’ about this campaign, it was on brand, bold and ultimately to many of us, the right thing to do – to coin a phrase, they just had to do it.

Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of Featured Image Credit: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick walks into the tunnel after the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports

Note: Article published on Linkedin Blog here: LINK

About the Author /

John O'Brien, MBE, is currently the European Managing Partner at Omnicom's ONE HUNDRED Agency.

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