What Nike & Colin Kaepernick can teach us about being a modern brand

While mindlessly scrolling through Twitter on Monday evening my thumb abruptly stopped — and that’s rare. Nike’s partnership with Colin Kaepernick is perhaps one of the strongest, most impactful and potentially most divisive examples of brand purpose I’ve seen to date.

Within a few hours #BoycottNike was trending and people were taking to Facebook and Twitter to burn their shoes and cut off Nike logos (a real blow to those who would have benefited from a clothing donation, if you ask me…) and claiming brand will never see their money again.

But, does any of that matter? Will the upset people make a difference? Eh…

One thing we see time after time in new research with self-identified purchasing behavior is that people rally around brands who stand for something — that if a brand were to make a commitment to cause or issue, their customers would follow and reward them for speaking up. We’ve always known about the ability to strengthen an existing relationship through commitment to cause; but, the ability to actually attract users BECAUSE of that commitment (buycotting, as some say) feels less explored. You’ll notice — the ad says nothing about shoes, shirts, apparel, balls, none of that. It feels fresh because the campaign lives above product RTBs and within the actual ethos of the brand. It’s trying to bring you to Nike because you believe in what they stand for. I love it.

Historically, purpose has hovered around a group of highly important yet more safe issues: protecting the environment, celebrating diversity, helping women in the workplace. These matter a lot; but, they’re not encouraging debate in the same bitter spirit as kneeling for the National Anthem. It’s risky. We might not all agree on the science of climate change, for example, but we all want to continue living on this plane (hopefully!). Must much be considered for potential scenarios and implications from a vast collection of stakeholders.

Nike is smart. They know that this work could alienate much of the NFL fan base across the country and cause tension with non-sympathetic team officials; but, they also know that their apparel contract with the NFL was just extended through 2028. They knew they were opening themselves up to exposure; but, they realize the purchasing power of Black Americans and their allies who have been leading the fight against police brutality.

Business case aside, this is a truly exciting thing to witness — and, I believe that it will pay dividends for Nike and open the door up for other brands who are willing to stand for something and to actually stake a meaningful stand on an important side of history. I loved walking into the gym this a.m. and hearing people talk about the ad, sharing their pride of being a Nike user. It’s amazing to see voice given to such an important cause and incredible figure on a stage this big.

For me, this is when advertising is at its best: when we get to hold up a mirror and reflect the cultural conversation, to get people to take another look at something and to figure out how we can make progress on an issue — not just on the P&L.

Words are nice when they come from brands; but, commitment matters. That’s how we build purpose-driven, integrity-full brands in today’s climate. Congrats, Nike. You’ve thrown a gauntlet that all of us who work in brand and care about purpose should strive to meet.

*written while proudly wearing a pair of admittedly old and dirty Nike running shoes…(should probably go to the store soon)*