Why Nike’s controversial Colin Kaepernick campaign wasn’t a gamble

Sep 07, 2018

GDR’s John O’Sullivan explains why Nike’s divisive new campaign was neither brave, nor stupid, but in fact incredibly calculating

Arguably the biggest and certainly the most divisive story in retail this week is Nike’s decision to use controversial NFL player Colin Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign.

Two years ago Kaepernick was the first NFL player to protest against racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. His actions divided the nation and challenged the very idea of what it means to be an American and a patriot. For some, led vociferously by President Trump, it is an unforgivable and traitorous act that disrespects the American flag and US servicemen and women. For others Kaepernick’s actions continue the non-violent protest traditions of the US Civil Rights movement. Democrat challenger in the Texas Senate race Beto O’Rourke recently said: “I can think of nothing more American.”

Amidst this polarising backdrop Kaepernick has become persona non grata in the NFL and has been without a team since March 2017.


Predictably divisive

This week Nike referred to Kaepernick as “one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation” as it announced his involvement in the Just Do It campaign. An image of the 30-year-old quarterback and the tagline “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” will appear on Nike billboards, TV commercials and online ads. The brand will also launch a Kaepernick clothing line and has signed what is believed to be a very lucrative multi-year contract extension with him.

Predictably the campaign has divided opinion. Many have praised it or called it brave, while on the other side there has been significant backlash, with #JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike trending on Twitter. President Trump tweeted: “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way?”

The fact is, yes, I think it did. I think it knew exactly how it was going to turn out.  The debate about Kaepernick has been played out very publicly during the last two years on social media and across news networks. Pre-launch, the sample size of available data about the topic was exhaustive and incredibly precise. I’d be surprised if Nike has ever run a campaign before where it’s had more certainty about how it was going to land, who was going to laud it and who was going to vilify the brand. Nike would have known not only how each key demographic was going to respond to the campaign, but even how specific communities, families and even individual influencers would respond.

While Nike no doubt would have pored over the potential repercussions of the campaign, it ultimately decided that the benefits far outweighed the negatives. It knew there would be boycotts, it knew its products would be burned and defaced, and it knew that it would be alienating some potential customers. And these were deemed acceptable losses because it also knew that key target groups would applaud the brand’s perceived moral courage and integrity, and that these important consumers would be cemented as brand loyalists.


Brave, stupid or neither?

So is it brave of Nike to back Kaepernick? Not particularly. Brands can no longer afford not to have a political opinion these days and, given the data available and Nike’s longstanding relationship with the player going back to 2013, there’s an argument that Kaepernick was actually a fairly safe horse to back. The statistics in this TMZ article suggest that Nike clearly feels that its core consumers are overwhelmingly more likely to be pro-Kaepernick, than against him. So it’s effectively playing a hand that it knows will delight its biggest fans, while angering a lot of people that have little or no brand loyalty to Nike.

A Twitter poll of more than 35,000 people by ESPN reporter Darren Rovell also suggests that only 1 in 5 people have had a negative reaction to the campaign. Of those polled 29% said they were more likely to buy Nike products after the campaign, 21% said they were less likely to buy from the brand, while, interestingly, 50% said it would not affect their buying decisions.

So, rather than saying that Nike has been brave, or it’s been stupid to take on this toxic topic, I think it’s been extremely calculating. Rovell, who initially broke the story about Kaepernick’s involvement in the campaign, also revealed that Nike has continued to pay the player during the last two years despite not using him for publicity during that time. In Rovell’s words, Nike was “waiting for the right” moment to reintroduce him.

With the NFL season starting this week, political tensions over the hotly-anticipated mid-term elections starting to ramp up and Kaepernick’s grievance lawsuit against the NFL set to go to trial, Nike chose its moment well and has been dominating the news cycle. I suspect things have turned out exactly as it planned.

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