Nike’s Colin Kaepernick Ad Campaign: Courting Controversy or Playing Politics?

There’s no such thing as bad publicity. Or is there?

Never one to sit idly on the sidelines, apparel giant Nike is putting that old adage to test — in no uncertain terms.

To celebrate the 30-year anniversary of its ‘Just do it’ tagline, the world’s 18th most valuable brand launched a multi-billion dollar campaign featuring athletes who have overcome long odds and pushed limits to achieve greatness. The flagship print ad and video spot feature controversial former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick advising people to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

What makes him a controversial choice?

For the eleven people who haven’t yet heard, Kaepernick refused to stand during the singing of the American national anthem to protest social injustice and police brutality against people of colour.

This got him blacklisted from the NFL and has made him a lightning rod for both vitriol from those who interpret this peaceful protest as an unpatriotic act disrespecting the flag and all those who serve, and admiration from those who see it as a courageous stand and a shining example of exercising the First Amendment rights enshrined in the Constitution.

Love him or hate him, Kaepernick is now the de facto face of the Nike campaign and – with apologies to Serena Williams, Lebron James and Canadian refugee feel-good story Alphonso Davies – the only one anyone is really talking about.

This was without doubt a calculated risk on Nike’s part.

They were fully aware of the QB’s polarizing status. In fact, despite being under contract with the company for several more years, Nike had reportedly considered cutting ties with him mere months earlier. In the end, they chose to double down and, in effect, turned his stand into theirs as well.

They had to know this would be a politically charged decision.

President Trump was on record using colourful language in his disdain for NFLers who chose to kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick’s cause, a stance that certainly played well to his right-wing base. Given the divisiveness of the Trump presidency, as well as his administration’s penchant for calling out those who disagree with him, you have to think Nike knew they would get a strong reaction from the Oval Office.

They chose to go ahead with the campaign in spite of the anticipated backlash. Or perhaps because of it.

Has the risk paid off? That’s the billion-dollar question.

There’s no doubt the campaign has garnered plenty of attention.

Bloomberg reported that the campaign gained $43 million worth of media exposure in the first 24 hours alone, ballooning to $163 million a few days later. And, according to a New York Times article, the launch video garnered more than 80 million views across social media in its first month.

The backlash came as expected, with MAGA boosters calling for a boycott on Nike products. In fact, #BoycottNike and #JustBurnIt trended together on Twitter. Nike’s response did little to put out any fires, so to speak, as they released instructions on “how to burn our products properly.”

The campaign also spawned an impressive array of memes. If exposure was the only goal, it has been a categorical success.

The question is, has it helped or hurt the Nike brand?

This is certainly a divisive issue, with Kaepernick a polarizing figure, but the Nike campaign was carefully calculated to claim more than its share of supporters for two main reasons.

The first is political: President Trump’s credibility is being challenged on the global stage – just ask the UN General Assembly – and contradicting POTUS these days is more and more likely to put you in the majority. You certainly risk offending his base, but this is a small (albeit very vocal) percentage of the world’s shoe-buying population.

The second is pure marketing: Nike knows their customers, like, really well.

They are youthful, with the majority under 35. And, being a global brand, they are ethnically diverse. Both of these facts play in favour of the current campaign

According to Quinnipiac polling, gen pop voters approved featuring Kaepernick 49% to 37% against. Among those aged 18 to 34, and therefore perfectly aligned with Nike’s customer profile, approval reached 67% versus 21% against.

Controversy is very much on brand.

The truth is, Nike is known to court controversy. Previous ads have featured people like post-scandal Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Maria Sharapova, dating all the way back to abrasive runner Steve Prefontaine, the company’s first athlete endorser.

As one of the world’s savviest marketers, Nike understands that today’s consumers support brands that are authentic and that stand for something. If that something is a social conscience, so much the better.

While it initially fell in response to critical reaction, Nike stock quickly rebounded to reach its all-time high. The company’s online apparel sales experienced a marked boost as well, up over 30% the weekend after the campaign’s launch.

Shortly after it kicked off, President Trump tweeted “What was Nike thinking?” One could argue they were thinking something like this: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

Nike calculated the risks and then went for it. Or rather, they decided to just do it.

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