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Taking a Stand In Controversy: Should Nike Just Do It?

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency
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The Colin Kaepernick campaign, which we first discussed yesterday, is high stakes for Nike because it is much, much bigger than the brand. Bigger than sport. The brand is engaging with a hugely complex issue. It is an issue that touches on American history as well as American values. It is not about institutional racism, freedom of speech, civil liberties. It is about all of that and more. So this is dangerous, but also, important territory. The campaign has polarised consumers, because the original issue polarised consumers. Many Americans feel that Kaepernick’s stand was unpatriotic, disrespectful and was anti-American rather than anti-racist.

There is also enormous risk in Nike taking on this issue and being found to be hypocritical. If people accused Nike of racism, sexism or showed the business to be unethical in the way it treats people, this could result in long-term damage to a company's reputation. Nike is a huge sprawling mass of individuals. It has enormous supply chains and operations that stretch the length and breadth of the planet. Across this business it is possible, actually it is highly probable, that there are individuals who do not behave in a way that is represented through the Nike brand. This again plays to the difference between a business taking up a cause and an individual doing the same.

There is also risk in overexposure - so far the campaign is estimated to have generated at least $43m worth of media coverage and the internet is awash with conversation about the ‘controversy’. The campaign has now generated so much noise that it is being hacked by people who see this as a platform to have some fun or are taking their own stand.

If the message becomes appropriated by a much larger audience, there is a risk that this could undermine, not just the intent of the Kaepernick campaign, but also that of the Just Do It celebration. We know the days where ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ are gone and the investment in a big idea, targeted at specific audiences can easily come undone. And brands are fair game when it comes to attempts to connect through challenging or innovative communications campaigns. We’ve seen the fall out from Gary Lineker Walkers crisps meme and of course Boaty McBoatface. If you search Nike ‘just do it’ today, you will see that the campaign has gained notoriety, acclaim, but also hundreds of thousands of new interpretations.

Just Do It…but do it strategically

Nike’s corporate activism risks alienating some audiences in the US who disagree with the message, but it will also have been a calculated risk. Nike has a track record of backing new talent, outsiders, and individuals who have polarized opinion. Nike will have done its homework on any potential damage that this campaign could cause.

Ultimately, Nike has made a strategic decision about what matters to their core and future audience. As with any celebrity endorsement, it has aligned with an ambassador that represents its brand idea but critically connects that idea to its core target audience. Nike has made a decision about the relative value of the audiences that will take umbrage with the campaign, and those who will feel it connects with them. As well as adopting a position that highlights an important issue, it has made a bet on an audience.

Nike may well have taken into consideration the likelihood that the audience that disagrees with its message will be less likely to publicize their dissent. Those disagreeing may also be more likely to forgive and forget – and perhaps have changed their opinion as a result of the campaign.

Aside from audience split, they have certainly done their research. Last year Kaepernick’s football shirts were at number 39 in the NFLPA’s official NFL merchandise Top 50 list - and for a while in 2016, his jersey was the top seller. As well, the timing of the campaign suggests that this was a considered move from the brand, with the NFL’s new season about to begin and the long US Labour Day weekend on the horizon.

Overall the Nike campaign is a great move. It lights a fire under the brand, as well as the issue. It shows that brands can and should get involved in issues beyond their core business. It demonstrates the opportunity for brands to grow by doing good.

Image credit: Brook Ward/Flickr