Screen Shot 2018-09-17 at 10.24.56 AMCan brands compete without taking sides on toxic issues? Do brands need to have a voice in today’s highly polarized, public arena where extreme views seem to dominate?

Are cushy, corporate messages about saving everything enough to portray social sensitivities or do they need to go further?

Well, you can argue that Nike has indeed crossed that line.


Nike’s bold campaign, supporting the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick’s stand (mind the pun) against police actions is worth pondering in this extreme branding context.

Edgy celeb campaigns are not new for Nike. They have supported controversial sports stars. However, until now the controversy stayed within the confines of sport. Tennis’s on-court, bad-boy John McEnroe was an early figure for Nike and today’s big Nike names, like Tiger Woods, Ronaldinho, and Serena Williams are not without their public issues, but again in all these, Nike has held their involvement to within the sports context.

Kaepernick’s case is not about competing on the sports field. Nike has decided to celebrate his right to ‘believe in something.’ Fine, standing up for one’s rights is all-American and admirable but Nike has moved outside sports and into arenas with heavily divided public opinion, like racism and respecting America.

Yes, one could argue that Kaepernicks’ stand is within the realm of sports. He is a professional footballer, and the venue for his anthem kneeling protest was on the sidelines, but again his stand is not about sporting achievement.

Ok, you can also argue that the Nike brand has always been about self-motivation and individual triumph. Just Do it. Got it. But, whether Nike would agree or not, the brand is now risking turning off consumers who violently disagree with Kaepernick’s views and can act on this by burning their Nike shoes, switching to others like Reebok and Adidas and even banning Nike gear (as a Louisiana Mayor has reportedly done.).

At stake could be Nike’s respect for four American institutions … sports, the Police, the minority/social justice advocates and the National Anthem and Flag. In one action they have poked these huge hornet’s nests of emotion, angst, and outrage.  Each with its full complement of extreme views.  

According to a recent Reuters study, 72% of Americans agreed that Kaepernick’s behavior was inappropriate. NFL viewership is down.

Nike sales will plummet!

However, they have not. There was stock market resistance and videos of people burning their shoes, but sales were actually reported to increase, and even the Louisiana Mayor has apparently walked back his ban. Stocks are back up, and Wall Street pundits are using words like ‘genius’ and ‘brilliant’ to describe Nike’s bold strategy.

How could this be? Where is the sales effect of the many with strongly opposing views?

Well, herein lies the reality. Strategically Nike brand folk may have determined that they needed to grow equity and sales for their new shoes among the younger audiences who tend to favor equality and fairness and the rights of individuals. And, who unlike their older cohorts are less vested in the traditional American icons and importantly more likely to buy directly online. What marketer would not like that going forward?

My older friends may not burn their Nike shoes but do proudly announce that they will stop buying Nike. Basically, who cares because my younger friends who represent the bigger market couldn’t care less and put Nike campaign down to ‘good marketing.’ “Its Ok they are just trying to sell their stuff.”

And here is the kicker. Nike is a global brand, and like many American brands who are really global brands these days, they are less US-centric. Some 60% of Nike sales are outside the US and growing among populations, who are more likely to stand (or should I say kneel) with Kaepernick’s views.

So there it is.  At the risk of gross oversimplification, the question is should brands stay in their comfort zones of keeping everyone happy or should they risk alienating some buyers by following a more active or even extreme role in populist causes?

Great question. It’s all about building your brand and future growth. And, in today’s brand parlance it’s also all about authenticity. As they say, you are what you believe.

It is a perfect time to dig deep into this strategy for your brand and see where it takes you. We’d love to help you think it through.