What Nike’s Kaepernick Campaign Teaches Brands About Going Political



Nike’s new campaign with Colin Kaepernick is a risky, but savvy, business decision. Here are three things brands should know about political marketing campaigns.


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Nike lit social media on fire over the weekend with its new “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the controversial and political quarterback.

Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL for a couple of years, and many (including Kaepernick, according to a lawsuit he filed against the league) believe that’s partially due to his decision to kneel during the national anthem in protest of the treatment of people of color in the United States.

Even for Nike, this was perceived as a bold and risky move. Kaepernick isn’t a signed athlete at the moment, mainly because some people view his form of protest as disrespectful.

We won’t debate the merits of Kaepernick’s protest here. We can, however, examine the decision of a major brand to essentially back a controversial political statement.

Business, like everything else, is political now

“Republicans buy sneakers too.” This fabled statement by Michael Jordan—whether he actually said it or not—has been a guiding light for many brands. Better to not take a side in a world where everyone, regardless of political or religious affiliation, is a consumer.

That’s no longer the case, especially in our volatile political environment. Sidelines to political conversations are increasingly rare in a world where the president weighs in on the actions of football players (and just about every other topic).

Brands are expected to take a stance on the issues of the day: 60 percent of millennials are “belief-driven buyers” according to Edelman. That means brands need to decide how and when, not if, they will weigh in on important issues. Nike joins big-name (and highly successful) companies like Google, Patagonia, and Starbucks to make bold political statements of late.

But it’s still business

Nike may be taking a stand on behalf of Kaepernick and his political views, but that doesn’t mean Nike is giving away money senselessly. They’ve clearly done their homework and decided this campaign would benefit them.

And so far, they’re right: One estimate says Nike received $43 million worth of media exposure in one day just by unveiling this campaign. Expect that number to rise as the conversation continues.

Responses and takes from sites such as Business Insider, Fast Company, and The Undefeated all agree—this was a business decision and a savvy one at that.

Getting political for its own sake is a short-sighted move and one that may backfire. Before getting controversial, it’s important for brands to understand the impact of taking a side. Who are the company’s customers? How will they view this move? For Nike, which is aiming for those belief-driven millennials, this decision may have been unexpected, but it’s understandable.

Stick to your guns

Not all of the reactions to the campaign were neutral or positive. Some highly visible responses included the burning or destruction of Nike gear.

In Nike’s estimation, that’s okay. They won’t let a vocal minority deter them from what is clearly a long-term play. In fact, a few days after announcing the campaign, they dropped a new commercial narrated by Kaepernick. The co-opted movement continues.

Once you choose a position, don’t apologize. You’ll likely engender more hate if you try to play both sides of the issue. Embrace the hate: If you’ve done your research, it will prove to be the exception, not the rule.

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