Just Do It: Nike puts its money where its mouth is

Alexandra Dziuma
Senior Vice President
Kantar Millward Brown

Kirsten Hjort
Senior Director, Client Leadership
Kantar Millward Brown


It is impossible not to be aware of Nike’s new campaign, that stands behind a controversial cultural issue with Colin Kaepernick as the narrator. The ad immediately generated a massive amount of buzz, but it posed a deeper question: Besides getting noticed, will this help or hurt Nike as a brand? In the weeks following the release, as the dust settles in the social media world and the stock calms down, the we think the answer is pretty clear – it has been a success. But this success poses other questions: Why was Nike able succeed where so many other brands have tried and failed? And while we know that brands can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines of important issues, how and when do brands engage in a way that doesn’t risk turning off half of their consumers? Overall, what can marketers learn from Nike?

The first thing Nike got right was the timing and understanding their audience. As the start of another football season begins, the campaign is very topical, bringing the “take a knee” movement back into the limelight. However, it is not a new topic – by following events surrounding the movement for the last one and half years, Nike had the opportunity to assess and understand consumer reaction. This is a luxury of time that many brands don’t usually have when responding to a cultural movement. Maybe better than anyone, they know their audience, which helps equip Nike for success. They found the right balance between being topical but controlled – something extremely difficult to do with such an emotionally charged situation.

Nike’s brand positioning allowed them to take such a bold stance because of the natural convergence of this cultural movement and its brand mission. Nike didn’t just pick a cultural issue because it is popular among the core target. Nike’s deeply rooted brand purpose acted as it’s north star. The brand has a strong purpose and deep heritage behind supporting athletes, with its mission statement: “To bring inspiration to every athlete in the world”. As a brand leader, Nike’s message would be superficial if it only supported a select few athletes. Instead, Nike took an opportunity to be a true leader and brand ambassador by literally risking everything to live up to its mission statement. Not only does Nike’s positioning give it the right to have a say in this controversy, it gives Nike an obligation to do so. With the recent rise of so many competitors in their market space, some might argue that Nike may feel the need to grab attention. However, we don’t believe this campaign was intended to challenge competitors, but rather encourage disruption among its largely millennial consumer base.

A campaign like this can’t focus purely on financial gains. The story must be routed in taking a stance when it is core to your brand philosophy. When brands stand up for their consumers, speak for them and with them, the trust gained is truly genuine. Where brands often fall short is with empty promises. Advertising that tries so desperately to tell consumers what they want to hear without having an intuitive connection to the brand leaves a brand vulnerable. In this case, however, it seems Nike has been able to achieve genuine trust alongside financial gains. According to Robinhood, a no-fee brokerage whose users tend to skew much younger than traditional brokerages, reported investment in Nike is up 45 percent from less than a week ago. These investments allow Nike to double down on their Millennial target – a consumer base who desires disruption.

Maybe most importantly, all would be for naught if the delivery falls flat. By using Kaepernick, Nike was able to jolt an established campaign, but still deliver the same message and stay true to its brand. The ad was emotionally charged and powerful, yet classic and universally relatable. As a consumer, you may question Kaepernick’s actions and the way he has chosen to demonstrate his stance, but does it really make you question Nike and what the brand stands for? We think it only makes their position clearer. Nike struck the right chord by being bold and choosing a side of a sensitive issue, but smartly approached it with a very universal message. Kaepernick narrated the story, but they broadened the message by showing so many respected athletes fighting for different things. Capturing basic human emotion allows the audience to relate and connect to what the person (Kaepernick) was saying, even if not the person delivering it.   

In the end, Nike illustrated that if you stay true to your brand, takes risks that get you closer to your mission and deliver in a way that taps into a fundamental human emotion, you will be successful. According to the 2018 U.S. Monitor, 78 percent of Millennials think that more companies should take a stand on important social issues. While Nike’s controversial choice may seem strange to some, it may end up being a potentially genius move to better connect with Millennials, who are always after “audacity with purpose”.

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