Nike and Colin Kaepernick

Where business meets politics


Nike and Colin Kaepernick: Where business meets politics
Nike and Colin Kaepernick
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I. Nike

Nike became a top global sports brand with its famous and beloved tagline: “Just do it.”

  • Dan Wieden, who was Nike’s advertising executive in 1987, came up with the most striking slogan in history: “Just do it.” This catchy phrase can be interpreted in a variety of ways and motivates customers to take action.
  • The Just Do It campaign motivates customers to pursue and celebrate the pure joy of playing sports regardless of skill, age, or race.
  • Thirty years after the first campaign, “Just do it” remains a beloved slogan around the world as an inclusive tagline that could be applied to anyone under different circumstances and conditions. It also declares that anyone can find a better self inside if they were determined and took action.
  • Despite being one of the top brands in the world, Nike has had more than just success crowding its history. In the 1989-90s, Nike faced boycotts from customers due to poor working conditions at its subcontractors’ production plants, and recently was held accountable for sexual harassment and discrimination with the spread of the #MeToo movement. In the end, Nike forced more than 10 senior executives to leave the company in 2018 for inappropriate workplace behavior.
  • Amid this controversy, Adidas fiercely pursued its rival Nike in the U.S. market. Adidas had 11.3% market share in the U.S. in 2017, more than doubling from a year earlier, as the Adidas Superstar became the best-selling sneakers in the world. Many American teenagers no longer regard Nike as the coolest brand as previous generations did.

Colin Kaepernick, a Nike-sponsored athlete, started kneeling during the national anthem to protest the discrimination against Black Americans. His actions divided the American people into two extremes according to race, generation, and political orientation.

  • Kaepernick signed a sponsorship deal with Nike after setting a record of 10,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards in the NCAA Division 1. He was drafted for the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 and received much attention in 2012 when he led the team to the Super Bowl while the mainstreaker quarterback was injured. He signed a six-year, $126M contract with the team, but then suffered a shoulder injury that left him unable to perform like before.
  • In 2016, Kaepernick began to kneel before the American anthem, saying he won’t show respect to the anthem of a nation that discriminates against and oppresses Black people and other [1] people of color. His resistance, combined with the Black Lives Matter movement that started in 2013 when Black youth were killed as a result of police brutality, has sparked a nationwide sensation.
  • When high school and college athletes began to join the movement, President Donald Trump and many others in legal and political circles criticized Kaepernick for not showing respect for those who sacrificed their lives for the U.S.
  • According to a survey, White people chose him as their least favorite NFL player while Black people chose him as their favorite player. In general, his actions split people into extremes according to race, age, and political orientation, e.g., older Republicans criticizing him and younger Democrats supporting him.
  • At the end of the 2016 season, Kaepernick became a free agent, but no NFL team signed with him. He filed a lawsuit claiming that all owners of the NFL had colluded not to hire him.

II. Colin Kaepernick and ‘Just Do It’

Nike launched a new ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Just Do It, and the ad put Nike at the center of a political controversy.

  • On September 3, 2018, Nike’s new ad campaign to mark the 30th anniversary of the Just Do It campaign was posted on Instagram. The post reading “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt” with a close-up of Colin Kaepernick’s face caused a social sensation with 3 million related posts in 24 hours.
  • An additional two-minute video titled “Dream Crazy” featuring Nike-sponsored athletes such as LeBron James and Serena Williams was released at the start of the NFL season. While ads with Kaepernick’s face and related phrases were seen on billboards in major cities such as New York, Nike didn’t post them on its website or Facebook.
  • This ad evoked an immediate response from the public. Some interpreted it as Nike’s taking a clear [2] stance against President Trump, claiming that the company has shifted from its past inclusivity to a new attitude that narrowly defines its customer base and excludes others who fail to meet its terms. Some worry that taking a stand on such a sensitive and divisive issue is not a wise business decision.
  • American patriots, especially those who have served in the military, have taken Kaepernick’s actions as a challenge to America’s fundamental spirit and an insult to those who sacrificed their lives for the nation. Accordingly, they reacted negatively to Nike’s ads that featured Kaepernick talking about his personal beliefs and sacrifice.
  • Since the campaign began, the positive perception of Nike has decreased by half online, and the figure of people saying they’ve recently heard something negative about Nike rose from 2% to 40%. Negative hashtags such as #BoycottNike emerged, with people spreading photos or videos of themselves burning Nike products on social media.
  • Furthermore, the campaign intensified scrutiny over Nike’s irresponsibility and hypocrisy on various social issues. When a Vietnamese factory worker who made Nike shoes died in poor conditions, Nike’s response was that they don’t make shoes. Many people are disappointed that a company that has built a corporate image with people who challenge the limitations of society and earns tens of trillions of dollars each year tolerates poor factory conditions and a sexist culture within the company.

Nike’s decision to reveal its position on sensitive political issues drew much sympathy from Millennials, with sales and stock prices also showing positive trends.

  • Nike’s decision is understandable from a business standpoint as well. The company’s biggest target demographic are people with high disposable incomes and high life expectancies. While it’s important to win votes from older people politically, targeting younger people may be better financially. What matters is what Nike lost and gained—what the net was.
  • Nike gained huge brand exposure from this campaign and coverage by various media outlets. “Dream Crazy” reached 80 million views on social media in about a month, and Nike gained thousands of new followers. According to an agency survey, Millennials were 30% more empathetic toward the ad than the average, while the older generation, Generation X, were also more empathetic than the average.
  • Nike’s online sales increased by about 30% after the ad and increased by about 15% compared to the same period last year. Though Nike’s stock fell temporarily at first, the drop was in line with the industry’s overall slump and soon rebounded thanks to increased sales. Despite the online controversy, offline customers’ perception of Nike has not changed much according to survey results.

III. Business and politics

Nike has historically been involved in various political issues, but its Colin Kaepernick campaign is driving the company toward an unprecedentedly comprehensive and sensitive issue.

  • Nike has historically been involved in political issues. It was the first brand to sponsor LGBT and disabled athletes, and also launched a campaign to eliminate discriminatory support for male and female athletes in school sports programs. Nike also organized a campaign to demand equal treatment for marginalized groups such as Black and Muslim people.
  • Moreover, Nike took a clear political stance in its campaign with Colin Kaepernick. Amidst a volatile political environment, Nike decided to jump into a much bigger issue than the company itself. This issue isn’t simply a matter of supporting the underprivileged, but encompasses a dangerous and sensitive part of American history and values, freedom of expression, and structural racism. Given the divisive nature of these issues (e.g., police brutality, patriotism), Nike’s current and future customers are bound to take sides.
  • The [3] bottom line is, what did Nike sacrifice and how much did it gain? A company can pursue social responsibility when it’s economically sustainable. Nike made a historic decision with its 30th anniversary of Just Do It, and the customers’ reaction will lead Nike’s future in a new direction.

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