What Nike’s Kaepernick Ad Means For Your Brand

Like many, I’ve watched this week’s discussion around Nike’s 30th anniversary campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick play out across every imaginable media channel, veering from fiery headlines on the front pages of national newspapers to YouTube videos of protesters literally lighting their Nikes on fire. But much of the discussion has, at least from my perspective, missed the point. In the spirit of transparency and context, I was a copywriter on the Nike account at their Portland-based ad agency, Wieden and Kennedy, and so my thoughts are colored by close proximity to the brand and its advertising. It’s from this vantage point that I see both misunderstandings and missed opportunities in some of the dialog thus far.

The knee-jerk reaction to the inclusion of Kaepernick in the campaign — both positive and negative — was unsurprising and disheartening. It is symptomatic of both the mainstream media’s predilection to sensationalize issues to entice eyeballs and the persistent habit of social media platforms to polarize issues as a function of their algorithms. As a result, the debate quickly devolved into two camps, one passionately “for” Nike and one aggressively “against,” as one time fans cut swooshes off their socks and sports teams surrendered their Nike jerseys. So heated was the reaction that a poll by Morning Consult found that as many as 24% of Americans now viewed the brand unfavorably (up 7% from before), its stock pricedropped 3% in trading on Tuesday and #BoycottNike was a trending topicon Twitter. A clear-eyed discussion of the reason behind Kaepernick’s actions was quickly lost in the process. Kaepernick’s failure to stand for the National anthem was demonized as disrespectful to the American flag, military and veterans, when in fact Kaepernick “took a knee” on the advice of a veteran who explained it was a sign of remembrance. As such, his actions were a conscious balancing act between respect for the military and protest against police brutality.

Many have characterized Nike’s campaign as a reckless approach to marketing, yet this anniversary campaign is consistent with what it has always done. If I was asked to name the one distinguishing factor about the Nike brand and its marketing from other sportswear companies (having also worked on other footwear brands), it wasn’t the quality of their products but rather how well they understood the athlete endorsing it. This understanding empowered them to connect with athletes on a far deeper and more persuasive level, making them feel truly understood and appreciated. In doing so, they invested their products with a badge value that elevated their brand above others with comparable products, and shored up their majority of mindshare and loyalty around the globe that has endured for three decades despite public PR crises.

In that context, the inclusion of Kaepernick in their campaign is but the latest chapter in a long story arc that has celebrated the performance and humanity of athletes. For what Nike has long understood is that sport is far more than the physical activity. It is an experience that challenges us as human beings by constructing games with rules and regulations that provide critical lessons in teamwork, discipline, sportsmanship and countless other values fundamental to who we are as people. It’s part of the reason why sport is institutionalized around the world as an essential part in the development of children and young adults. So as important as sports are to their physical development, how it shapes them as human beings is just as essential — if not more so.

What Nike also recognizes is the platform on which an athlete now plays is far wider than just the field itself. For decades brands and their advertising agencies controlled media channels, but with the rise of social media, what was once a monologue by brands has become a dialog with consumers. What’s more, every individual, not to mention pop stars and elite athletes, now has free access to channels that build and amplify their brand. As we have seen play out on almost every cultural front, individuals with out sized talents have embraced these channels to reveal what they care about — whether by a television camera pointed at the sideline of a football field or a short tweet on social media.

By including Kaepernick in its campaign, not in spite of his stance on police violence but in celebration of it, Nike recognized that this is now a legitimate part of what it means to be an elite athlete in an “always on” world. Just as we see all types of athletes patchworked with sponsor logos, we now see those same athletes becoming increasingly vocal and visible about what matters to them based on their personal values and experience. And while some commentators rightly contend that the sacrifices Kaepernick speaks of in his ad don’t compare to the ultimate sacrifices made by servicemen and women, that shouldn’t rob him of his right as an athlete to protest police brutality in a manner that also respectful of the fallen. While some claim Nike and sport has no business addressing such issues, discussion of larger cultural challenges is now squarely within the purvey of every industry where high-profile figures choose to use their celebrity and channels to speak to what they stand for.

With this as context, I want to shift focus to what I see as a missed opportunity in much of the discussion of Nike’s campaign so far. While it is always of interest to see what an advertising campaign does for a brand, especially one as high-profile as Nike, it is far more valuable to consider what it means for your own brand. As the latest expression of a long history of industry and marketing leadership, Nike’s campaign serves as an implicit challenge to all companies to consider their role in shaping culture. Of course, not every brand has elite athletes, big budgets, or a global footprint. But every company has (or can have) a purpose, core values and the chance to stand for something bigger than itself, just as Nike with social justice in this campaign.

So based on Nike’s example, what key questions must every brand ask themselves? Here are several critical ones to answer. Are you clear about the values that define your brand? Are you willing to defend them publicly? Are you willing to alienate those of your customer base that may not agree with you? Are you committed — operationally, financially and culturally — to champion those values, often at bottom line cost, to your company over the long term? The reality is that if you want to rise above the noise of competitors and the endless stream of branded content, you must define your purpose. You must consciously choose to challenge your industry by leading a cultural conversation that is meaningful and relevant to the lives of those you’re trying to reach. You must shift your perspective from marketing to one of movement-making as Nike has always done.

As Edelman’s Earned Brand Survey confirms, the stark reality of business leadership today is this: there is no middle of the fairway. You cannot straddle both sides of the fence in terms of audiences or issues. You cannot stay silent and avoid misunderstanding or misinformation. To oversimplify, in consumers’ minds today (and especially with younger demographics), you are either part of the solution or part of the problem and this scrutiny will only increase as environmental, social and cultural issues increasingly compromise our daily lives.

There are those that would characterize Nike as opportunistic by leveraging the sensationalism around Kaepernick and the issue of police brutality in order to raise awareness of their brand. Nothing could be further from the truth. What it means to be an athlete today has changed and including Kaepernick in their anniversary campaign is wholly consistent with the business and marketing leadership that Nike has displayed for 30 years. Their anniversary campaign is more than the new normal of marketing. It embodies the reality of doing business in a challenged world. That means taking a strong stand for what you care about and cultivating a healthy appetite for risk. Some may enjoy the sport of judging whether what Nike did was right or wrong, but there is far more value to be gained from examining what their campaign reveals about business leadership today and how your brand will respond.