Nike’s renegade marketing has triumphed once again with Colin Kaepernick

How many companies can claim that the leader of the free world has become embroiled in its campaign, thereby ensuring what may have gone unnoticed by many suddenly became the highest trending marketing story of the week – asks Nick Foley of Landor

Nike is one of those brands with the type of persona and essence that enables it to take greater risks than any others companies in its category.

This has again been demonstrated by the events of this week, where the avant-garde sportswear brand has chosen the controversial American football player, Colin Kaepernick, to become its latest poster boy.  

It’s difficult to think of a brand that has drawn the ire of so many, based purely on the selection of a new brand ambassador, in recent times.

The initial response from investors in Nike shares was thoroughly predictable. Within hours of the new campaign being revealed, a number of shareholders sold off their stock – resulting in a two per cent reduction in the share price.

Institutional shareholders are a conservative lot and don’t like surprises. A campaign making a heroe of an athlete, who dropped to one knee during the American national anthem in order to draw attention to the disproportionate number of African Americans being shot by the police, was always going to raise eyebrows among those who believe a clear line exists between brands and causes.

One of those who has publicly voiced his distaste for the Nike campaign is the 45th president of the United States, one Donald Trump. Once upon a time it would have seemed odd for a sitting president to weigh in on the pros or cons of a brand campaign.

But, of course, these times are far from normal. We live in an age where the leader of the world’s largest economy is prone to showing his disdain for something by thrashing out a few angry tweets or swiftly appearing on a talk show sympathetic to his brand of politics; to talk about why something is either ‘great’ or ‘sad’ or ‘very sad’.

This week he was on The Daily Caller lambasting Nike and saying that Kaepernick sent a “terrible message”. In fairness though, and what was less widely reported, the president also remarked: “In another way, it is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do.”

The Nike brand is no stranger to controversy and has a track record of driving awareness through non-orthodox marketing activities. One of the most memorable Nike campaigns occurred during the 1996 Olympics.  

Nike’s marketers betted against handing over millions in sponsorship fees to the International Olympic Committee in the forlorn hope of building brand awareness by (yawn) being the ‘official sports apparel sponsor of the Olympics’. It left that little opportunity to rival Reebok and instead banked on a campaign that culminated in the tag line ‘You don’t win silver. You lose gold’.

Nike’s bet on controversy, rather than convention, paid off handsomely for the proprietor of the famous ‘Swoosh’ and cemented it the minds of many as a brand that was not afraid of ruffling some feathers – if that’s what it took to stand out from the field.

The events of this week are evidence, once again, of the renegade brand persona. Risk and return go hand in hand for the firm that has etched itself into the minds of millions of loyal consumers through tag lines ranging from ‘Go hard or go home’ to ‘Just do it’.

And while the current tag line may have been hijacked this week with the hashtag ‘#justburnit’, the reality is that very few folk in the marketing department of Nike would be surprised – nor concerned – by the response to its 30th anniversary ‘Just do it’ campaign.  

Indeed, part of me thinks a number of seasoned Nike veterans are quietly rejoicing in the response to this week’s events. After all, how many companies can claim that the leader of the free world has become embroiled in its campaign, thereby ensuring what may have gone unnoticed by many suddenly became the highest trending marketing story of the week?

Not many, that’s for sure.

Nick Foley is president of South East Asia-Pacific and Japan at WPP brand consultancy firm Landor


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