There are a lot of pundits out there trying to explain Nike’s new campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. The problem with most of them is that the optics are all wrong. They are looking at it in the context of politics. But that is not why Nike and their advertising agency, Wieden + Kennedy chose to feature the polemical NFL quarterback.
The reason is cultural leadership.
Nike has not exactly shied away from controversy in the past. They embraced bad boys like John McEnroe and Charles Barkley. They used Spike Lee in commercials to promote Air Jordans. And they are highly aware that athletes can be polarizing. They dropkicked Micheal Vick in less than a day of learning about his dogfighting ring.
Thanks to the folks at Nike’s agency of record, the shoe brand has learned over the years that it pays to be part of the cultural conversation. It’s why they began embracing women as women in their communications and product design. It’s why they are leading in addressing working conditions in overseas manufacturing facilities. And why they are among the few large companies to formally address workplace discrimination issues.
Nike is an athlete’s brand. They have one of the most succinct mission statements in corporate history, “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” And as one of their founders once said, “If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
Nike supports athletes. And it is no secret that a majority of athletes recognized Colin Kaepernick’s right to protest during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games.
Where do the majority of Nike’s customers reside? In large metropolitan areas— the same areas that are bright blue on the electoral map. So the ad featuring Kaepernick wasn’t very controversial with most of their customers. In fact, they likely did a few focus groups to test this idea. I doubt they were surprised apparel sales jumped 31% after the launch of the campaign.
The cynics will say that Nike is exploiting a controversial issue to sell shoes. But in an era of contentious opinions, where everyone has a platform to express those opinions, publicly deride and defame individuals for the slightest provocation, and declare a boycott on brands who do not meet their cultural standards, Nike showed leadership.
And it made them more relevant than ever.