Experts Weigh in: Was Nike’s Colin Kaepernick Ad a Good Idea?

Oct 8, 2018 · 9 min read

Our recent opinion piece by AMA CEO Russ Klein on the wisdom of Nike’s controversial decision to feature Colin Kaepernick as the face of its iconic brand drew considerable response, both pro and con, from our readers. A representative sampling of those strong opinions is featured below, framed around four key questions we asked each author to consider. For those who didn’t read Klein’s original article, we’ve summarized it below:

— David Klein, Chief Content Officer, AMA

Russ Klein

For many brands today, the blurry line between purpose and profit presents a knotty management issue. I would generally advise against positioning a brand around issues where there are otherwise legitimate and divergent points of view. The opportunity to grow a brand is maximized when bringing many different-minded people together who can be satisfied by a powerful and unifying solution for something in their lives.

The case of Nike and Colin Kaepernick is unusually complicated because from the outset, people have been shouting past one another without agreeing on the issue at hand. There are hundreds of millions who are pro-diversity, pro-civil and -human rights and utterly intolerant of police brutality, but simply feel Kaepernick’s activism doesn’t belong in that forum, at that time, during the performance of what, for many, is a coveted American ritual. To be “against” Kaepernick’s actions is not to be for bigotry and racism.

My point here is that had Nike come out with a commercial that admonished Kaepernick’s actions in favor of a panorama of players standing during the anthem with their hand on their hearts; I would be giving the same counsel, “Don’t do it!” Why divide people around a misunderstood issue for which there are two or more legitimate points of view?

I will concede the Kaepernick move is provocative and highly viral. But it divided Nike’s near universal brand appeal into something smaller. Not just because of the obvious math, but because of the arrogance of it. No doubt, Nike’s customer data showed that its core sneaker-buying audience was sympathetic to this message, and perhaps the company felt it could ignore the demographic groups that disapproved. Nonetheless, with this move, Nike took away a connection that millions want to make with a brand they once felt understood them.

  • ​How would you describe the recent Nike ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick?
  • How would you evaluate this kind of campaign from a strategy perspective?
  • What metrics would you use to evaluate this kind of campaign?
  • What risks do companies face when considering similar campaigns?

Mary van de Wiel

Big-hearted, brave, bold and empowering. Yes, Nike knew it was taking a risk. It made a clear decision to show up on the side of inclusion and diversity. That kind of thinking is what has always given the “Just Do It” campaign a pumping, vital pulse. And it’s that kind of stance and energy that resonates deeply with people.

This strategy comes from an insanely pure, human perspective. Nike is giving out important information about what the company stands for. By backing Kaepernick, it’s revealing its values.

Metrics don’t always evaluate a campaign with heart effectively, particularly when the campaign addresses issues around that only-human factor and deep emotional intelligence.

Nike risks alienating its core audiences, of course. Big time. But what if companies asked a different question that wasn’t fear-based? What if they wondered instead about what guarantees they could count on when considering a similar campaign? That would certainly give their core audience the chance to see who they really are, what they actually stand for — and why any of us should give a damn.

Thomas Ordahl

Nike is not going to sit on the sidelines, but rather it is getting in the game. It is a bold move from a company that faces increased competition from rivals such as Lululemon and Adidas. This ad was meant to get people talking, and judging by the reaction it has generated both on social media and in the news, it definitely achieved this goal.

But in addition to generating buzz, Nike went further and took a stand, aligning itself with Kaepernick’s cause of protesting the inequality African-Americans still experience in the United States. Consumers today want to know that the brands they support share their values, and with this ad, Nike made it loud and clear what it represents.

It was daring. It was controversial. It was risky. But it was smart. The worst reaction from consumers is no reaction at all. Indifference can cause brands to fade into obscurity. Even if consumers hate your brand, you are part of the cultural discussion.

Before Nike released this ad, it knew it would receive backlash from some groups, but it also knew that people would applaud the brand and praise it for sticking by one of its athletes. And it knew that no matter what the reaction, it would dominate the conversation.

The easiest way to measure the effectiveness of the campaign would be to watch Nike’s sales. The company’s online sales surged after the ad debuted with product orders rising by 27%. Since the ad has run, the stock has risen 6.25%.

But for a campaign that was designed to get Nike back into the cultural discussion, looking at the long- term discourse will truly tell how successful it was. Nike’s CEO recently said that this ad generated record engagement with the brand, but will it last? If in three months Nike begins to fall into the background, then it will need to reevaluate the strategy.

Bernard Jaworski

Organizations have a responsibility to support a functioning society. Apple’s support of gay rights, technology firms’ support of immigration reform and Unilever’s support of ecological responsibility are all wonderful examples of firms recognizing their societal responsibilities.

As such, I would normally applaud Nike’s support of civil and human rights. These acts — supporting individual rights, civil liberties and enabling all individuals to live a full, complete life — are noble, just goals for any organization. However, organizations must also recognize not just why but also how they support a well-functioning society.

Let’s face it: The Colin Kaepernick move was intended to be controversial, edgy and “game on” — just like the Nike brand. But Nike also knew this move would alienate a large percentage of its customer base. In that sense, the Kaepernick decision was not just a move to support civil rights, but it was also a move that Nike knew would be applauded by some and hammered by others.

Surely, Nike knew some of its loyal customers would join together to burn their products in fits of rage and hate for public viewing. As someone who wants to unite society, rather than divide it, my simple question for Nike would be, “Was there a better way to support and promote civil and human rights that would unite all — or most — of the consumers who bought, used and enjoyed your brand?” It would have been a difficult task, for sure, but one that would have more lasting benefits for a much broader range of society.

Pam Ellen

This was an intentional decision to step into the divisive environment surrounding Kaepernick’s activism.

Nike clearly felt that his protests resonated with its market and was willing to risk it by providing him another platform.

The campaign extends Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan from personal health and athletic performance — a universal value — into political speech and activism without regard for the degree of appeal for the target of that activism.

Nike is walking a fine line, supporting the right to free speech without supporting the nature of the speech itself. It obviously risks alienation of customers, investor and contracts with institutions for whom this is too subtle a distinction.

Bruce I. Newman

The fundamental aim of any organization is to define its brand by distilling the meaning and value of the company into an easily identifiable message that resonates with various segments of consumers and other entities in society. The recent Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick and the statement, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt,” does exactly that extremely effectively, in only a few words!

Strategically, the campaign works because it matches a message that has emotional resonance with a messenger who has very high credibility in a way that enables Nike to stand out as an organization willing to risk its brand reputation on the support of a controversial movement in the NFL. As in politics, commercial organizations can succeed by creating a movement around an attractive personality who is willing to risk everything by taking a controversial stand on a hot issue.

The ultimate risk to any company is the possibility of taking a well-established brand reputation that may have taken decades to build and destroying it with an ill-fated campaign that goes viral overnight, at which point, the fate of the company falls into the hands of the millions of people who comment on it online. Certainly, in this case Nike is taking a risk by appealing to a divided fan base in the NFL. There are a number of people who have boycotted the NFL and look down at Colin Kaepernick. Yet as journalists have reported in articles analyzing this commercial, the sales of Nike products are moving higher since it aired.

J. Walker Smith

Nike’s decision to build a campaign around Colin Kaepernick was inspired. It played directly to the brand’s heritage, and it spoke in a signal way to the brand’s buyers. Nike took a social stand, and its consumers stood by it.

Without question, this ad was right for Nike, and this has prompted other brands to ask whether they should do the same — which is something brands ask themselves in the wake of every successful or innovative ad. But what is good for one is not necessarily good for all. Indeed, the essence of marketing is to do what is right for customers, and for that reason, taking a stand with Colin Kaepernick won’t work for many brands.

Brands have a special view of social purpose. Social responsibility only works if it is first and foremost commercially responsible. No brand can actually go as far as Kaepernick says and sacrifice everything, so the Nike campaign has to be assessed for what it really is: a business decision. Other brands face that as well. Social purpose is important, and it has intrinsic value beyond business, but in a commercial context, purpose is a means to an end. It can mean bigger things, too, but it must first pay its way. Nike tipped its balance sheet in the right direction with the Kaepernick ad. For Nike, purpose paid off. Purpose matters more than ever to lots of consumers, so many brands can earn a return on purpose, but only when they do will purpose will find firm footing in commerce.

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