Hannah Harshe: Why Nike really made Kaepernick the face of its campaign

Wednesday, October 3, 2018 - 6:21pm

Hannah Harshe

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In 2017, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank said  President Donald Trump’s “pro-business” policies are “a real asset” to the country, and Under Armour stock fell 40 percent. Sam Poser, an analyst for Susquehanna International Group, told Business Insider Plank's praise for Trump made it "nearly impossible to effectively build a cool urban lifestyle brand in the foreseeable future."

In 2018, Nike released a new marketing campaign, the face of which is Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who Trump once called a “son of a bitch.” Kaepernick is best known for protesting police brutality by kneeling for the national anthem during professional football games, a move that has been highly criticized primarily by those who identify with a conservative political ideology. Kaepernick no longer plays professional football, allegedly because his protests are so controversial that no team wants to deal with the backlash that will come with signing him. The New York Times described Kaepernick as “the most polarizing figure in American sports,” saying “outside of politics, there may be nobody in popular culture at this complex moment so divisive and so galvanizing, so scorned and so appreciated.”

When he became the face of Nike’s new marketing campaign, Nike’s online sales increased 31 percent and its stock closed at $85 a share, a company record.

This is the young, urban consumer base. You can love them, you can hate them. You can disagree with them. But if you’re in marketing, none of that matters. Your goal is to make money. If you’re marketing for an athletic wear company, you make money by appealing to the young, urban consumer base.

Kaepernick kicked off Nike’s marketing campaign on Sept. 3 by tweeting a picture of his face and a message that read, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

This post, and Nike’s campaign video (which now has more than 26 million views), sparked a fire. A Quinnipiac poll showed  the majority of those 18 to 34 years old approve of Nike’s Kaepernick ads, while the majority of those 65 years and older disapprove of the ads.

Customers (and former customers) on both sides made their views known. Kaepernick supporters applauded Nike for “doing the right thing” as if it was a purely altruistic decision in which Nike sacrificed profits to show its support for racial justice. Critics of Kaepernick had equally loud voices, as #BoycottNike and #JustBurnIt trended on Twitter the whole day Nike released the ad campaign.

The reactions of both sides show Nike executed this marketing campaign effectively: Nike convinced its consumer base that it used Kaepernick as the face of its campaign because it wanted to make a statement about his protests, not because they used statistics and data to make a risky but well-calculated business decision. 

Matt Powell, a vice president and senior advisor at The NPD Group,  confirmed this analysis; “I think Nike went into this absolutely knowing what they were doing, with the intention that some people would be offended,” he told the The New York Times. “But the people buying their products, whether they are a millennial or a Gen Z consumer, those consumers want their brands to take visible, social positions, and this is an opportunity for Nike to do just that.”

In fact, Nike had initially been planning on dropping Kaepernick completely. It made logical sense: Kaepernick is no longer signed with any NFL team, so they can’t put his name on any jersey. But as an undisclosed former Nike employee told the New York Times, Nigel Powell, Nike’s head of communications, “went ballistic” when he heard this decision. Analysts say “the largely white, older N.F.L. fans angry at the league over (Kaepernick’s) protests” aren’t a priority for Nike.

Instead, their target customer base is a younger, more urban demographic who is passionate about racial justice and tends to support Kaepernick’s protest. As Fast Company noted, “The bulk of Nike-sponsored athletes are young and black, so the company is already aligned with Kaep’s issue and why it matters.” This group would have undoubtedly been furious if Nike dropped Kaepernick, and this is the group whose support Nike needs. As Josh Brown, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, tweeted, “Nike is marketing to their customer of the next thirty years, not the last thirty years.”

Granted, it was a risky decision. But in this day and age, companies don’t have much of a choice when it comes to taking a risk. If a company chooses not to speak out about a controversial social issue, it risks losing its customers to a company that will speak out. According to a recent survey from Morning Consult, urban and young consumers “were more likely to say they would react favorably to a company that advocated the right of protesters to kneel during the national anthem.”

Sports apparel companies learned the hard way last year that one mild comment in support of Trump can be detrimental. This year, they learned that what may appear to be an extreme and risky decision in support of an anti-Trump public figure is a fantastic business decision. Love it or leave it, that’s what the market demands.

Hannah Harshe can be reached at hharshe@umich.edu.