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Nike: social champion or calculated marketer?

By Angela Everitt

The Economist Group

London, United Kingdom


It’s only crazy until you do it — this is the parting shot of Nike’s controversial ad featuring former NFL player Colin Kaepernick released to celebrate the Just Do It campaign’s 30th anniversary.

The short film, which also features LeBron James and Serena Williams alongside a number of inspiring young unknowns, has almost broken the Internet in the few weeks since it launched on September 3. Everyone seems to have seen it — either via social media likes and shares, or from reporting across a host of titles.

The Nike campaign got people’s attention and hit its targeted audience.
The Nike campaign got people’s attention and hit its targeted audience.

And then, of course, there is the criticism, the most-high profile of which came from Donald Trump. In one tweet he said Nike was “getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts” in response to the ad. A number of people did take to social media to share videos of them either burning their Nike trainers or cutting the swoosh off their socks.

But far from getting killed itself, the brand has, well, just totally killed it. In just a few days after the ad’s launch, sales were reportedly up by 31%, and, after a week, shares in the company hit a record US$83.90 a share.

Am I alone in wishing I could have been a fly on the wall of the creative meeting where someone suggested featuring Colin Kaepernick? To recap: In 2016, he was the first sportsperson to kneel in protest at police brutality against unarmed black men in the United States. He remains without a contract to play football for any team.

The team at Nike’s agency Weiden + Kennedy would have known full well what the potential backlash might be, but the decision speaks to the fact the agency and Nike also have a good understanding of the target audience: the Gen Z consumer.

According to a report co-authored by marketing consultancies FutureCast and Barkley, human equality (racial, gender, and sexual orientation) is a non-negotiable for Gen Z. And, compared to other generations, this segment of the population is involved in activism at a much earlier age.

This is also not the first time Nike has pushed boundaries with its ads.

In 1989, it advocated for people with disabilities in an ad featuring the Paralympian Craig Blanchette; in 1995, it featured Ric Munoz, an openly gay, HIV-positive runner. The same year it highlighted gender issues by highlighting the positive impact of organised sports for girls. Last year, it released the “What will they say about you?” ad, featuring Middle Eastern women challenging societal norms by taking part in sports such as boxing and skateboarding.

In a study by The Economist Group about social purpose and how it impacts the bottom line for brands, more than half of the 1,600 global senior executives surveyed said they wish their company would take a visible stand on issues impacting society. However, in the same study, 87% of the respondents in the Millennial demographic said, “It is sometimes hard to tell if a company cares about a social cause or is just trying to sell more products or services.”

The Kaepernick ad for Nike feels authentic because the narrative isn’t all about his protest and the events that prompted it. It’s about the sacrifice and belief necessary to fulfil ambition and a call to action for young people to not only fulfil their dreams but smash them out the park.

Yes, it’s selling to an audience, but it’s also inspiring them. And that’s not crazy at all.

About Angela Everitt

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