Colin Kaepernick: Branding Genius?

It’s a peculiar story.

A once elite NFL quarterback loses his starting job. Rumors surface that his team will release him. The media derides him as a wasted talent. Just when matters can’t get any worse, he sets off a firestorm by taking a divisive public stance. He sits during the National Anthem. People are outraged. He’s about to become a pariah. A hated outcast.

But that doesn’t happen . . . far from it. Instead, he becomes the most talked-about person inside and outside the world of sports. He’s front-page news. His NFL jersey outsells the likes of JJ Watt, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. In front of a nationally televised Monday Night Football audience, the cameras and all eyes are focused on him — the backup quarterback.

This is the unlikely story of Colin Kaepernick, branding genius.

SANTA CLARA, CA — SEPTEMBER 12: Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi’s Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Regardless of what you think of his politics, as a marketer you can look to Kaepernick as a case study for how to build a stronger brand. Skeptical? Consider these fundamental branding rules and recognize how Kaepernick executed them to perfection.

  1. Stand for something. Kaepernick has been crystal clear on his values, purpose and position. He’s articulated that position with sharp words on oppression, inequality and social injustice — messaging that resonates and gets people talking. Brands must also stand for something. Because if your brand doesn’t have well-defined positioning backed by compelling messaging, it will be unfocused, bland, or worse, ignored.
  2. Find your tribe. Kaepernick doesn’t appeal to everyone. If fact, it’s safe to say about half of America hates him. Maybe more. So how can he be a branding dynamo? Simple. Brands that try to attract everyone, typically appeal to no one. The reality is it’s often better to be loved by a small audience than liked by a big one. When people are enthusiastic about what you’re doing and saying, they’ll tell their friends (and in the case of Kaepernick wear his jersey).
  3. Be authentic. Kaepernick risked potentially millions of dollars by taking such a controversial stance. He donated $1 million to assisting communities affected by racial injustice. It’s clear he’s not trying to parlay his position into additional fame and fortune. Basically, he’s not bullshitting people. Authenticity works in branding because it enables people to relate to you. It gives substance to your business beyond making a buck.
  4. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Kaepernick isn’t fearful of offending or even pissing off some people. Strong brands aren’t either. Brands that have diligently defined their audience have more room to take creative risks because they know their audience gets them. And in a world that’s inundated with marketing messages, creativity is important to stay ahead of the competition. That doesn’t mean you have to be brash or controversial, you just can’t be afraid to color outside the lines.
  5. Be consistent. Kaepernick didn’t wane under pressure. He stuck to his story during games, at the podium, during interviews and across social media. Strong, successful brands do the same because giving mixed messages leads to confusion and mistrust.

What other brand lessons can marketers learn from Colin Kaepernick’s story? Share your thoughts below and if your brand needs some help discovering its own story, give us a shout.