Nike-Kaepernick Campaign: A Lesson in PR and Target Audiences

Nike recently teamed up with NFL athlete Colin Kaepernick on a viral ad campaign. As many of you know, Colin Kaepernick was the first in what became a controversial choice to kneel during the National Anthem before game kickoff. The campaign launch ad reads, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The decision to choose Kaepernick is clearly a divisive choice by Nike, and it has erupted into a social media firestorm – both for and againstĀ Kaepernick and Nike – with some users sharing videos of them burning their Nike gear and others responding with calls of support. The back and forth has become a trending hashtag (#NikeBoycott) on Twitter in just hours after the launch.

So, Nike is clearly going to lose some customers, at least in the short run, over this ad campaign supporting Kaepernick and the NFL anthem kneelers.

Is this a public relations nightmare for Nike? No, probably not. It’s not that simple.

A History Lesson: United Colors of Benetton

As many older generations know, social issues have often played a role in advertising. United Colors of Benetton famously featured mixed couples, condoms, HIV/AIDS, and other content in their ads that flew in the face of the values of some consumers. Social justice and equality issues became the center of their advertising, rather than their product, and it unleashed a loyal following on consumers who applauded this audacity.

Instead of sinking their brand and sales, Benetton’s ads had the opposite effect. Loyal customers look to them as a leader on social issues and look to them for guidance – or even as a statement of their social beliefs. Benetton anticipates that some customers will not like their messaging, but they understand the marketing adage “you can’t be everything to everyone.” Instead, Benetton has looked to their target customer audience and created advertising that is meaningful to them. It’s been working for them for decades.

Just a Cheap Advertising Tactic?

Nike has already seen $43 million in free mentions on social media, tv, and other sources. Whether you like the campaign or not, there’s no denying that it has generated the kind of attention that Nike hasn’t seen in a long time.

Does this mean that Nike is being insincere and doesn’t actually care about this issue? Perhaps. But like the ad says, “even if it means sacrificing everything,” Nike is all in.

According to media from years before this recent controversy, Nike is trying to appeal to women, young athletes, and runners. We know that a company as large as Nike is looking at the demographics and attitudes among their target market about these issues – any large corporate structure is doing market research. With 68% of the NFL being African American, and an overwhelmingly large target of younger, more socially conscious customers, it’s no surprise that Nike feels it’s good business to partner with Kaepernick.

So, does that mean that Nike doesn’t actually care? No, not necessarily. But caring about a topic and being willing to put your entire brand on the line aren’t the same thing. Nike is taking a big risk here by taking sides on a controversial issue.

Will it Pay Off?

Beyond the initial social media firestorm, it’s clear that Nike will face an uphill battle to avoid financial issues from their advertising. But this partnership signals a long-term, not a myopic, look at their customer base and social issues as an opportunity to lead the market. Younger generations have been signaling for years that they want more corporate leadership on social and economic issues, and they’re willing to bring their dollars to the companies that provide it.

While Nike has taken a hit to its stock since the launch, it is looking towards the long-term gain of loyal customers who support Kaepernick’s goals. Clearly, Nike believes that they’re “sacrificing everything” too in terms of their current customer base in order to bring about change.

What do you thinkā€”is Nike making a solid marketing decision by partnering with Colin Kaepernick?