15 Nov The Millennial Series Pt. 5: Nike and Colin Kaepernick
Nike’s Kaepernick “Gamble”
Risky business, or playing the long game?
As a San Francisco 49ers fan I took special interest in Nike’s latest sensational headlines. If you missed it, the athletic apparel giant has made Colin Kaepernick the face of their latest “Just Do It” campaign. Initial reactions to the announcement were intense, and tended to be of polar extremes. There were many tweets and videos on the negative end including one from President Trump. These ranged from questioning the choice, to boycotting, and in some cases actually destroying nike products. On the other end of the spectrum there were individuals such as Serena Williams that had never been more proud of the company and vowed to support them more than ever before.
“For Nike, sticking with Kaepernick through any negativity is the only option they have. If they back down, they lose face because that’s exactly what Kaepernick refused to do.”
From a brand perspective this was fascinating to watch. By picking Kaepernick, Nike really has no choice but to stick it out with the campaign, consequences be damned. That is after all, the message behind the entire thing. Although it hasn’t been proven yet, you can surmise that Kaepernick no longer has a job in the NFL because he refused to tone down his activism. Kaepernick famously kneeled for the national anthems during the 2016 season to protest police violence against minorities. After the season, teams by in large avoided the free agent quarterback, just as they avoided signing fellow protester Eric Reid this offseason. The message is clear, teams aren’t willing to put up with the distraction. With talk of collusion, we can at least agree it’s hypocritical, coming from teams that regularly employ players with histories of drug use or domestic violence, but that’s a topic for another day. Connecting to social causes can be a great move for any brand. Most social causes don’t include this level of vitriol, though. For Nike, sticking with Kaepernick through any negativity is the only option they have. If they back down, they lose face because that’s exactly what Kaepernick refused to do. So, was this a calculated risk by Nike or did they underestimate the intensity of the fallout?
“Make no mistake, Nike is a mega brand, they didn’t go into this without major research. It was a deliberate choice to pick a side, alienating some, and thrilling others.”
Nike is no stranger to controversial sponsorships, they notoriously stuck with Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger after sex scandals. They haven’t always stuck with disgraced stars, though. They quickly parted ways with Lance Armstrong after his massive doping scandal. When pressed on the difference, it was noted that Armstrong’s transgressions directly affected his success in the sport. This makes sense logically, but the brand also dropped Michael Vick, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice after off the field scandals. These inconsistencies make it difficult to see any true pattern for why or how Nike deals with controversies involving athletes they endorse. Kaepernick is also different than all the aforementioned athletes because he was controversial at the start of the endorsement and is an athlete still in name only. So, what are we to make of the Kaepernick deal?
The whole thing comes down to a business decision. The country in its current state is very divided, much like the opposing sides of the “Anthem Protest” debate. By going with Kaepernick as the face of it’s campaign Nike unapologetically went for the younger generations. Make no mistake, Nike is a mega brand, they didn’t go into this without major research. It was a deliberate choice to pick a side, alienating some, and thrilling others. Gen-Z and the millenials are impressed with brands that embrace social causes and present as authentic. You can question whether Nike has always been ethical or authentic in the past, but it’s tough to challenge these most recent actions. It was a smart play to try to lock in the loyalty of the younger generation, numbers show that the brand isn’t exactly struggling due the controversial ads in the short term either. After a minor dip, Nike stock reached an all time high of 83.49 on September 14th and has stayed up since.
Whatever side of the Kaepernick debate you fall on, for Nike it was never really about him at all. They are supporting him in action and certainly must believe in the cause to an extent, but major brands don’t make massive decisions based on emotions. When it comes down to it, this was a well thought out business decision geared towards the younger generations. It has certainly worked well in the short term, maybe even better that expected. Long term gains were the ultimate goal of this campaign, though and only time will tell whether they are able to achieve that.