By making Colin Kaepernick one of the faces of its new ad campaign, Nike has perhaps taken the most significant political stand in its almost 50-year history.
Kaepernick–thanks to his leading role in initiating the kneeling protests against police brutality and racial injustice before NFL games–is one of the most divisive figures in sports, and that was before he became a . . . well, political football in the hands of President Donald Trump and his racialized conflation of this civil rights display with a jingoistic attack on flag waving.
The sidelined quarterback has reportedly been with Nike all this time, even though no team has signed him since the end of the 2016 season, so it appears that the Swoosh, one of the most powerful U.S. brands worldwide, simply decided to pick a team in the Trump Bowl.
Nike, though, is a complex, global business with $36 billion in revenue in its most recent fiscal year, so it did not solely make a political or social-justice decision. This is business. First of all, the bulk of Nike-sponsored athletes are young and black, so the company is already aligned with Kaep’s issue and why it matters. LeBron James, the company’s most popular endorsee, is someone who has not shied away from picking a fight with Trump–and winning. James turned around Trump’s first attack into perhaps the most succinct retort of the Trump Era (“U bum”), and he took the Laura Ingraham insult that he “shut up and dribble” to illustrate that culture and sports are inextricably linked while also turning it into a TV show.
Perhaps almost as important as the internal audience it needs to serve, Nike is an athletic apparel company. “Just do it” is supposed to symbolize pushing the bounds of athletic performance, not watching cable news all day, tweeting from the toilet, or reserving your finite amount of energy by, say, using a golf cart rather than walk during yet another round on the links.
Nike surely has some customers who enjoy Sean Hannity while wearing the latest Dri-Fit athleisure wear and shod their feet in the latest Air Max to attend a Trump rally. But overwhelmingly, Nike’s current–and future–customer is younger and more diverse than previous generations. The company’s stock took a dip on Tuesday morning, but some analysts are predicting its bet on Kaepernick will pay off down the road.
So while this new campaign represents Nike taking a stand, it also illustrates where the world is headed. As Josh Brown, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, tweeted, “Nike is marketing to their customer of the next thirty years, not the last thirty years.”
Of course, there is a more cynical take on that strategy:
Either way, the more compelling question is why Nike believes this is a worthwhile investment and what that tells us about the direction the culture is headed. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr outlined the differences between the NBA and NFL in pretty stark terms back in May: “I think it’s just typical of the NFL. They’re just playing to their fan base and basically trying to use the anthem as fake patriotism, nationalism, scaring people. It’s idiotic, but that’s how the NFL has handled their business. I’m proud to be in a league that understands that patriotism in America is about free speech and about peaceful protesting.”
The last year and a half has permanently altered the brand-culture divide, with many companies still struggling to navigate a landscape that increasingly demands they take a stand. When it comes to Kaepernick, the new Nike campaign and the public response so far have drawn a distinct line. On one side is the NFL’s brand of patriotism, jumping lock-step to the whims and complaints of Trump.
On the other are brands like Nike and the NBA, which see their stance as a valuable long-term investment. As the actor Michael B. Jordan said in an excellent “Equality” spot from last year starring James, Serena Williams, Kevin Durant, and other endorsers, “Here, you’re defined by your actions.”