Nike & Kaepernick: A well-executed flop?

Daniel Eb
Daniel Eb
Sep 7, 2018 · 4 min read

Nike’s latest campaign stoked controversy by featuring NFL star and social justice icon Colin Kaepernick. Let’s weigh up what the furore and fallout means for activist marketing.

You can cut Nike’s endorsement of Colin Kaepernick a few ways. A calculated broadside into the culture wars, cynical ‘woke-washing’ or even a new era of commercialised activism, driven by millennials who prefer their brands to have some political bite.

Either way, there are lessons to be learned — good and bad — about how a brand capitalises on social current to sell emotion rather than product.


If the Kaepernick play lands well, Nike may have just laid out a roadmap for how brands harness social movements in the age of the urban millennial. Early signs, like the $46 million of mostly positive publicity and a rebounding share price, bode well.

The campaign’s success will come down to Nike’s ability to do two things:

- Understand its customers, innately and personally.

- Withstand the collateral damage.

When all is said and done, Nike simply connected the customer dots. It’s customer base skews young, urban and ethnically diverse. This lucrative demographic wants to see their favourite brands reflect their political opinion, express liberal views and drive emerging culture trends. When 46% of Nike customers expressly support Kaepernick’s stance (vs 34% of the general public), the business case for the campaign becomes clear.

The campaign was always going to have collateral damage in the form of detractors, boycotts and bonfire viral videos. Arguably the backlash will fuel greater success. The campaign will be remembered less for what Nike stands for and more for what it stands against — the blind patriotism and wilful ignorance of the Make America Great Again crowd. But collateral damage on that scale is not for the feint hearted. The company lost 3% of its stock price immediately following the announcement — a whopping $3.75 billion. Anticipating and weathering that kind of balance sheet shock takes courage. How many CEO’s would have signed that off and gambled against the lost revenue of millions of lifelong, loyal customers?

In a broader sense, the campaign is simply a continuation of a strategy that’s worked for Nike. For 30 years, Nike has redefined the line where product and lifestyle meet. For many, the swoosh means more than shoes. It has a culture current of its own, grounded in values like determination, grit and personal triumph. With Kaepernick, the corporation is simply adding social justice to the list of what Nike stands for.

We will see more brand activism in the future. The relentless development of two-way engagement, detailed customer psychographics and user generated content mean that brands are becoming ever more human in how they look, sound and act. Is it any surprise then that the most ‘human’ of brands are prepared to participate in political polarisation, arguably the defining social trend of our generation?


The only major obstacle to the Kaepernick campaign may be Nike itself.

Technically speaking, this is A-class woke washing. On brand, on trend and in-line with customer’s beliefs, unlike Pepsi’s disastrous attempt to have Kendall Jenner solve the Black Lives Matter protest wave of 2017.

But the allegations of woke-washing and memes have started already and are exemplified by Trevor Noah’spainfully simple rebuke, “remember, corporations are trying to make money”.

Read past the headlines and we are reminded that Nike continues to face criticism over sweatshop labour, has a growing toxic workplace culture issue and a history of commercialising dramatic events like the Tiger Wood’s affair scandal.

The Kaepernick ad reads “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”. Nike hasn’t earned the right to slap that on a campaign and have us believe it. Decades of exploitative practices can’t be glossed over because you stand alongside a social justice icon when it suits your marketing objectives.

This is the age of radical transparency and authenticity. You can’t say one thing, do another and expect engaged millennials to forego their scepticism. Activist status can’t be bought.

After the controversy dies down and the free publicity dries up — time will tell how the campaign and Nike will be remembered. Will customers still care a year from now or will the marketing department simply move on and wait for the next opportunity to ride a culture wave?

In times like this, it pays to remember what real brand activism looks like. Patagonia’s commitment to fair wages, animal welfare, environmental standards and conservation are baked into its DNA — it will never need a marketing campaign to tell the world what it believes.

If Patagonia had decided to harness the political activism of the Native American water protectors at the Standing Rock protests, would the fallout have been the same?

Daniel Eb
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