In choosing Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of its 30th Anniversary advertising campaign and signing him to a multi-million dollar endorsement deal that includes apparel and footwear, Nike managed to spur a heated backlash against the brand.
Images of people setting fire to Nike gear and calling for a boycott of its products flooded social media and created such marketing buzz for Nike, that one estimate puts the value of the free publicity at more than $40 million.
In less than 24 hours, the Nike brand managed to elevate a former football player, now activist to near icon status despite the backlash, which is sure to be ineffective, just like similar protests against corporations that that have made political statements through their marketing and social justice activities.
When Brands Take a Stand
Nike is one of the most identifiable and popular brands in America and its popularity has always been driven by young people, who are the trend setters and taste makers of our time. So a bunch of middle aged angry white men setting aflame five-year-old kicks is likely to do little to damage the brand’s reputation, since this group isn’t a core demographic for the company.
Moreover, anyone who thinks that Nike made a massive PR blunder in signing Kaepernick to an endorsement deal doesn’t get marketing at all.
Brands are keenly aware that taking a stand on often divisive political issues will result in commentary from both supporters of their position and detractors. The supporters in this case are people who agree with Kaepernick, who was the first professional football player to take a knee in protest of racial injustice in America.
Kaepernick’s protest became a hot button issue when opponents of it, including President Trump, blasted the move as unpatriotic and disrespectful to our troops, which Kaepernick and those who support him have repeatedly denied.
In our world of divisive political issues, few have been more public and more contentious than Kaepernick’s non-violent political protest and Nike knows this. By signing Kaepernick to and endorsement deal, Nike is making a bold political statement consistent with the values of its primary base of customers: young people, including Millennials, who are among the most politically and socially conscious Americans in our time.
It was not an impulsive move, but a calculated marketing strategy by a brand that signed an endorsement deal with a former football player made much more famous due in part to being one of the targets of the president’s angry, divisive and vitriolic tweets. Being a target of Trump has actually elevated Kaepernick’s status from unemployed football player and social activist to icon and Nike knows this. It’s a brilliant marketing strategy.
As you can expect with the announcement of Nike’s deal with Kaepernick, those who see Kaep’s protest as unpatriotic were vocal and visible in the 24 hours following the announcement of the deal. They cut swooshes off of their socks, spurred the hashtag #boycottNike and lit fire to their sneakers (some of them while wearing them).
While these antics resulted in five seconds of fame for some of the protesters in now viral videos with third-degree burns, they will do little to permanently sully the reputation of Nike’s brand.
In fact, other brands have not only survived, but thrived after taking positions on controversial political issues. Dick's Sporting Goods was the subject of angry protests by gun enthusiasts when it announced that it would no longer sell guns in its stores following the Parkland shooting.
Pro-gun activists painted the company as cowardly and accused it of abandoning its core customer base. The controversy was not only short-lived, but the company managed to turn the announcement into a sales boost fueled by supporters of gun control legislation.
When brands take a stand on political issues, they realize there will be supporters and detractors. The supporters will become loyalists and the detractors will be vocal initially, but silent eventually.
You better believe that Nike ran the numbers, assessed the risk and determined that in the end, they’ll gain much more from making a statement than remaining neutral. It’s a bold political statement, but also a calculated marketing strategy that will ultimately, increase its street cred and stock.
Oh, and by the way, it was the right thing to do.
Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.