Nike puts size nines into politics

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Consumer brands are not known for taking overt political stances.

Doing so risks alienating customers with a different point of view. And so some observers found it surprising that Nike chose controversial NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as lead for a new campaign to commemorate the 30th anniversary of brand tagline, Just Do It.

Kaepernick helped spearhead a protest in 2016 to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice by kneeling (rather than standing) during the pre-game national anthem. Many other players followed suit. This, predictably, enraged Donald Trump and his more rabid supporters, who accused Kaepernick of being unpatriotic, and called for him to be fired. Kaepernick has not played professionally since March 2017. He accuses the NFL’s billionaire team owners of blackballing him to appease Trump.

The Nike campaign does not shy away from this controversy. The first poster campaign carries a message overlaid across the player’s face stating, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

This is a smart and calculated move by Nike, coming at a time when their great rival Adidas has achieved new levels of urban credibility through their “Yeezus” collaboration with Kanye West.

And while there was a predictable outpouring of hate from Trump supporters, with images of burning Nike sportswear on social media, coupled with hysterical calls for a boycott, sales of Nike products have actually grown by 27 per cent since the campaign launch.

There are reportedly plans for a range of Kaepernick sportswear, presumably aimed at people who want to signal their support for the social issues the former 49er has done so much to highlight, and perhaps also their opposition to Trump. The executives at Nike know they do not need to appeal to everyone. On the contrary, a bland message pitched at an imaginary middle ground is, in 2018, likely to fall flat.

In picking a side, Nike has shown it shares values which matter to its target customers, and it can expect to be rewarded for this bold move with increased loyalty in the years ahead.

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design