Nike – Kaepernick: A Brilliant Move or a Branding Disaster?

On 9/3/18 Nike has chosen Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, as its face for their 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” branding campaign. This endorsement deal has caused a flood of debate as a result.

The first ad Nike has released shows Kaepernick with the wording “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” This text is concerning Kaepernick’s protesting police brutality and social injustice against people of color by sitting, and later kneeling, while the national anthem was played before the games. As a result, in 2017 no team has signed up Kaepernick, and thus it alludes to him sacrificing his career.

Mixed Reactions

On the one hand, that prompted a lot of sports and entertainment celebrities to praise Nike and Kaepernick for this move – from Serena Williams, Criss Paul and LeBron James to Alicia Milano and Russel Crowe, the reactions were loud and clear with support for the controversial move.

On the other hand, that endorsement has started a widespread movement of fans burning Nike’s gear they own or cutting the “swoosh” logo and calling to boycott Nike’s products, showing disapproval for the clothing giant’s choice. As a result, Nike’s stock has fallen by 3%.

Was that move good or bad, from a brand and marketing standpoint?

Admittedly, there are a lot of opinions and only time will tell, but here is the way I see it:

Nike took a significant risk. They could have easily chosen someone else as their face and avoid politicizing their campaign. In a way, they are implementing their wording of believing in something even if it means sacrificing everything, however, this is not precisely true.

Yes, they will lose money. The stock will take a dive and sales can be slow. People that do not buy Nike’s gear will not suddenly change their ways just because they agree with that decision. As an example, I don’t like Nike’s shoes – they don’t fit the structure of my feet, and I prefer New Balance. Even if I support the move, it is unlikely that I will buy Nike to show solidarity. On the other hand, existing Nike consumers that disapprove the selection of Kaepernick, will switch to Nike’s competitors and diminish the brand in the short term.

I believe Nike expected this when they announced their campaign. I see a lot of calls on social media that this was a mistake that is going to cost the company quite a bit. Actor James Woods wrote they were committing “Brand Suicide.”

Let’s have a closer look:

Nike knew that almost unanimously, celebrities will go all-in in supporting that move. In the political and social atmosphere that is prevalent both in the sports fields and in Hollywood, it is not common to find supporters brave enough to speak against this social movement. Along the above supporters to Nike’s ad, the only famous person mentioned writing something against that move is John Rich, from country duo Big & Rich, that shared a picture of his soundman cutting Nike’s logo from his socks. It seems to appear as the odd example in all media coverage.

I know, celebrities do not buy Nike. The “common people” are, and a lot of them disapprove of Nike now and call to boycott them. That said, in the long run, the weight of celebrities endorsing Nike’s brand will outweigh the outrage that has no “face.”

The boycott movement will die off eventually because there is no one to lead it and to be the “celeb face” of it. Without celebrity endorsement, there will be less (if any) media coverage in the long run, and the cause will be forgotten.

My prediction is that in the years to come (maybe even months), the supporters of this move will applaud Nike even more, without even mentioning the branding decision. Nike, in my opinion, has acquired the loyalty and appreciation of quite a few people, whether they are famous or not, that will speak highly of the brand and wear it proudly.

Nike wants to be Apple.

The above is only an assumption. After all, I am not participating in Nike’s board meetings, but let’s review that for a minute.

Apple has been the envy of a lot of big brands and almost any branding and marketing book touches on the loyalty of their consumers (or should I say “fans”).  On every new iPhone release, even if the changes are minute, you see lines to the Apple store starting a day in advance – they don’t have to sell because consumers demand to buy.

Why is that? Apple managed to build a tribe of loyal, almost fanatic, customers. One of the reasons for that is that they stood for something. Good or bad, it was not bland. Apple represented something fresh and new and started off as “kicking the establishment” and rebelling against the consensus. It is known for doing things their way, despite the risks.

One example for the above is that at the time service providers dictated to the phone manufacturers which features each phone will have, Steve Jobs had his specs and was looking who will agree (only AT&T did, and the rest is history). Another example is blocking certain graphics features or taking out the earphone jack. Time and time again, Apple showed they are willing to take unpopular risks that may alienate some people but will make others “super fans.”

Barak Granot

#1 Best-Selling Author and speaker, Barak Granot, is a long a time entrepreneur and business contributor for Small Business Trendsetters, CNN iReport and Huffington Post. Mr. Granot is known for his keen marketing and branding analysis and consulting.