Nike sent shockwaves around the world in a matter of minutes with its 30th anniversary ad campaign. Television commercials, print and digital pieces featured Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. During the 2016-2017 season, the NFL star famously used his public platform to make a bold statement against racial injustice and police brutality: He knelt as the national anthem played before each game.
The act was a form of protest, and it generated great controversy. Political leaders and spectators responded in force. Some boycotted the NFL altogether, and many of them haven’t returned. Voices from the business world joined in, too, commenting on what other brands — and the NFL is a giant — could learn from the ordeal. The league’s ratings took a dive in that first season, when Kaepernick was actively protesting. Later, as Nike released its anniversary campaign, many industry watchers predicted that Nike’s stock could see a similar effect.
As it turns out, Nike’s stock reached an all-time high by mid-September. The athletics-gear company also saw hefty gains in sales revenue throughout the month. The marketing campaign reinvigorated the controversy around Kaepernick’s protest and the issues behind it.
A little more than a month later, a few key takeaways have emerged as branding lessons for the rest of us.
1. Approach controversy wisely.
Kaepernick’s protest season was polarizing because it activated two bases. First, it fired up people who claimed he was disrespecting the American flag and those who serve in military. Second, it rallied those who saw a need to defend the First Amendment right to expression through peaceful protest.
With so much heat surrounding Kaepernick, why would Nike take such a gamble on its 30th anniversary ad?
A certain degree of risk is inherent when a brand approaches any sort of public controversy. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to get involved. Remember Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner protest ad, which was pulled roughly 24 hours after it first aired? Pepsi and Nike addressed related issues, yet Pepsi’s version was a miserable public failure. Contrasting analysis abounds online: Articles about the Pepsi debacle advise brands to stay out of politics and focus instead on cultural trends, while posts on Nike’s campaign encourage brands to affirm their values by taking a stance.
The crucial difference between these two ads? Relatability and alignment. Popular figures or influencers must have a real connection to the issue at hand.
Pepsi chose pop-culture figure Jenner, a white woman born into family wealth and celebrity. Many viewers were turned off by the incongruency of Jenner as a stakeholder in the movements against police brutality and racial injustice.
Kaepernick, on the other hand, is biracial. Born to a single mother who made an adoption plan, he was raised from infancy by white parents. As a person of color with a foot in both worlds, he has a believable personal investment in the causes the two ads championed. Kaepernick also narrates the commercial, literally giving him a voice amplified by Nike’s massive marketing reach.
2. Embrace the backlash.
In the age of social media, backlash isn’t always a terrible thing. Even Pepsi’s colossal failure generated enough buzz to help drive a boost in profits. With the right premeditation, brands can wield backlash as a powerful tool to gain exposure and support.
The 2016 presidential election stands as perhaps the greatest proof of the no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity model. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump generated an enormous amount of free press. The big news networks covered it all, nearly every hour — and even before he’d secured the Republican party’s nomination. His brash, unfiltered attitude and blunt words created all sorts of public backlash. Look where he is now.
The same snowball effect holds true in social media marketing. The various platforms give everyone with a device and an internet connection the opportunity to provide his or her two cents on any given issue. You must be aware that when you approach a controversial topic, you’ll have a lot of supporters and a lot of detractors. The more the two sides debate, the more your company’s name comes up in public discourse.
Nike’s Kaepernick ad reignited the media circus that had surrounded much of the 2016-2017 NFL season. An extreme closeup of Kaepernick’s face featured prominently in the campaign, and news outlets plastered his image with nearly every headline about Nike’s 30th anniversary marketing effort. Supporters voiced their affirmations, and naysayers voiced their strong disapproval. Nike’s brand was front and center through it all as revenue soared.
3. Know who will rally behind you.
Kaepernick’s protest shined a spotlight on the contrasts found within America’s population itself. Many of his opponents are primarily older, white conservatives. A good share of his supporters are young, liberal-minded individuals — many of them people of color.
Nike’s leaders anticipated the campaign’s ripple effect likely would include a serious boycott from the opposition, but they took a calculated risk. Outraged customers posted videos of themselves burning Nike products and cutting or ripping the company’s logo from their gear. But the ad ultimately strengthened Nike’s dedicated customer base. Buying Nike products became its own statement of support for the causes Kaepernick represents.
4. Never sacrifice values.
Nike’s gamble was much bigger than its sizable following of individual customers. The outfitter is one of the NFL’s biggest sponsors and produces all the players’ jerseys. In fact, the two giants inked a new, eight-year partnership extension in March 2018.
Two months later, the NFL enacted a new policy that all players on the field must stand for the national anthem or be subjected to penalty fines. The rule likely was a reaction to the NFL’s drop in ratings and public pressure. From a branding perspective, the Kaepernick ad was a golden opportunity for Nike to cement its values. These principles center on mindsets such as never giving up, rising to the challenge, sacrificing for the greater good and serving a purpose.
A line from the commercial Kaepernick narrates became the headline on still-frame ads featuring his face: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” It’s a powerful symbol of living one’s values, given that Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, becoming a free agent in March 2017 — before the team could release him. He hasn’t played in the NFL since. Kaepernick alleges that the League’s team owners have colluded to keep him off the field, and his legal case against the NFL is pending.
The big picture
There are endless ways to craft your messages. Success comes down to how well you can predict the big picture and gauge the ripple effects. Take a page from Nike’s playbook next time you contemplate taking on a controversial topic to gain exposure. Done right, it can build unbreakable trust bonds with the loyal customers who identify with you the most. In the process, you’ll solidify your company values in a big spotlight.