Nike offer more than marketing
You will have seen Nike’s latest advertising campaign by now featuring Colin Kaepernick, the American football quarterback who attracted controversy for kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against police brutality and continuing discrimination against African Americans. This did not go down well with everyone, including NFL owners who have all but ended Kaepernick’s career in retaliation by refusing to employ him.
Following Kaepernick’s Nike campaign the uproar grew in volume. A few twitter oddballs burning their Nike clothing in protest at a man they saw to be disrespecting America were allowed to take over the narrative by dint of being featured on all major news programmes. The number of people burning trainers, cutting the Nike logo out of their shorts and generally being strange was small, but the coverage they got led to the impression that Nike would lose out from this campaign.
It turns out that the breathless news coverage of noisy right wing voices as if they represented a large number of people – as opposed to a small number of people adept at using social media – turned out to be misleading. Nike is absolutely on course to win this battle and there is nothing that the people burning merchandise or irritated NFL team owners can do about it.
The campaign itself is a brave and principled one. By proclaiming “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” Nike has put itself directly on the side of the Black Lives Matter movement, the anti-racism movement and the anti-police brutality movement. Given that the forces arrayed against this include the majority of police, the aforementioned NFL team owners, the Republican political party and their donors, and President Trump, this is a bold move which Nike should be rightly proud of.
However it is worth noting that Nike would not have entered this battle without having done the maths. The company would not have started a fight it did not know it would win. Please note this is not a bad thing. Nike could easily have chosen to not do this, and even when you are sure of victory it takes courage to enter the battle on the side of the oppressed.
The first aspect to consider is that losing the business of the NFL and American football fans is not the financial deathblow it once was. The sport’s audience is declining year on year. Since 2016 fewer people from all demographics have been tuning into games, as per a report from MoffetNathanson. If it was one group of people it would not be a worry, but the fact it is all groups turning off the sport has prompted analysts to warn television networks that this trend will only get worse for them.
The second aspect is that Nike’s target audience and biggest customers are most definitely not the sort of white conservative men who are busy burning their trainers on twitter – as an aside, burning something you already bought is not the same as boycotting a company, but that is a different story.
Instead, Nike’s main market focus is by all accounts women and young people – specifically young black people. For those unfamiliar with American politics these are the exact two demographics most likely to be turned off by the sight of white male outrage and most likely to embrace companies or brands which explicitly kick back against it.
So this was a calculated gamble from Nike, but a gamble nonetheless. Given that the company’s latest fiscal report showed annual revenues had increased 6% up to a total of US$36.4bn this was a fight that the company did not need to wade into, but it did.
It is a slick marketing move that holds a lot of lessons for other companies, but we should also not lose sight of the fact that this is that rarest of things – a gigantic international company putting something other than maximising profits at the centre of its global strategy.
This is not the first time Nike has done this; its Just Do It campaign now has a 30 year history of addressing social issues. The very first campaign in 1988 addressed ageism and the second a year later advocated for the disabled. One campaign in the 1990s starred openly gay, HIV-positive runner Ric Munoz at a time when this was seen as unacceptable on television, and another called If You Let Me Play was arguably the first campaign to argue for sport as a way to empower women.
It is not a stretch to say that Nike is the most progressive sportswear company in the world and that these advertising campaigns have helped to put cracks in walls which continue to hold many people back. Good business? Undoubtedly. But also a lot more than that.
The rage of a small number of white men on the internet shouldn’t overshadow that, and it won’t the all-conquering Nike.