Analysis

Nike took a hit after releasing the Colin Kaepernick ad. In the Trump era, that might be part of the plan

Nike's stock took a hit Tuesday after it released an ad featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has drawn ire over his #TakeAKnee protest. But some observers say the sportswear giant is playing the long game by taking a political stance.

Some supporters of Donald Trump made a show of setting Nike sneakers on fire to protest new ad campaign

A new Nike ad featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (Nike)

Enraged Nike customers are burning their swoosh-branded gear. Some U.S. conservatives are calling for a boycott of a company with global sales worth more than $36 billion US. The apparel giant's stock dropped more than three per cent on Tuesday. 

And yet, some sports cultural commentators suspect Nike's famed marketing department is relishing the reaction to the company's 30th-anniversary Just Do It campaign, which looks to be a purposeful endorsement of the controversial #TakeAKnee movement. 

How else could one interpret the company's decision to feature former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a frequent target of U.S. President Donald Trump's base, on its new print ad?

"Believe in something," it reads over a stark black-and-white portrait of Kaepernick. "Even if it means sacrificing everything."

Clash of branding titans

The former San Francisco 49ers star's protest against police brutality and shooting of black men — shown by taking a knee during the playing of the U.S. national anthem at the start of games — in the 2016-2017 NFL season set off a wave of similar silent demonstrations, transforming Kaepernick into one of the most polarizing figures in professional sports.

He has since gone unsigned for two seasons, not that Nike has seen any reason to drop its contract with an athlete who has been on the company's payroll since 2011.

In this 2016 file photo, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and former quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the U.S. national anthem. Those silent protests enraged supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

Kaepernick's jersey has become a top-seller in the league, after all. And that three per cent drop in share prices on Tuesday may not be so dramatic. Analysts noted that markets as a whole were down. Nike's closest footwear competitors, Puma and Adidas, opened to similar losses.

To understand Nike's marketing savvy, consider what the company's founder, Phil Knight, once told Sports Illustrated. In a 1993 profile, Knight said he believed that sport "is the culture of the United States," and his ambition was to make Nike define the culture of sport.

It might seem, then, that a direct challenge to the publicity-loving American president from the biggest American sportswear brand sets up a clash of branding titans, said Stephen Mosher, a sports culture and media analyst at Ithaca College in New York.

Kaepernick was the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem as a protest against racism. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Nike, which sells an estimated 25 pairs of sneakers a second, is apparently up to the challenge. Trump resisted lashing out on Tuesday at the apparel giant amid crucial Supreme Court hearings and a new bombshell White House exposé by journalist Bob Woodward. But on Wednesday, he tweeted that Nike was "getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts," even though Nike shares were recovering that morning.

"I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way?" Trump wrote.

Commercial calculation

But it's likely that Nike did anticipate the backlash, sports industry analysts say. Its courting of controversy appears to have been a commercial calculation for a company that has lost its grip on the teen demographic, which no longer sees it as the arbiter of cutting-edge sneaker style.

Nike likely wants to tap into a younger, more racially diverse market, Mosher said.

"They'll lose 45-year-old white guys and pick up 20-somethings who were thinking Nike is not cool."

What the Nike naysayers aren't grasping, according to the Bleacher Report's NFL columnist Mike Freeman, is that the Kaepernick campaign is entirely worth the risk for a company that has built its reputation on backing winners.

"For every Nike boycotter," Freeman wrote on Twitter, "there will be five people who will purposely buy Nike merchandise."

Nike's long game 

Robert Littal, the L.A.-based editor-in-chief of Black Sports Online, said he knows of several people who went out to purchase Nike merchandise "on the strength of that ad" alone.

"Nike has made a decision, not for today, tomorrow or a month from now," Littal said. "They're making a decision that five, 10, 30 years from now, we're going to look at Kaepernick in a very different light as we see him now.

"And they'll see he was on the right side of history."

Littal doesn't believe Nike's use of Kapernick's image is entirely fuelled by an interest in social justice.

"I'm sure they did their cost-benefit analysis and that this is all for their bottom line," he said.

What's important, Littal said, is that Nike is giving Kaepernick a platform to highlight issues important to people of colour.

'Marketing play'

If anything, the controversy will be welcome buzz for Nike, said Dan Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management expert.

Nike "had to know this would happen," he said. "They must be loving it."

Until Nike's stock takes a protracted dive, or it loses major partners, Hill doesn't anticipate the company suffering serious consequences from the Kaepernick campaign. On the contrary, to him, it looks to be in line with Nike's strategy.

Supporters of Kaepernick's protest rally in New York in 2017. (Stephanie Keith/Reuters)

"Nike is one of the best marketing companies in the history of mankind," Hill said. "I've got to think there's a marketing play here for sure.

"It could be a calculated risk that they're creating inertia around the brand in the belief that the people who will stand behind them are more important to them than the people who are going to be offended."

Corporate politics 

Of course, Nike is not the first major corporation to dive into a politically contentious issue.

Starbucks misfired in 2015 when it launched its "Race Together" campaign encouraging baristas to engage customers in delicate, soul-searching conversations about racial bias by labelling coffee cups with the "Race Together" slogan.

And Pepsi's riff on Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year was widely mocked after it suggested political tensions could be resolved by celebutante Kendall Jenner handing riot police a can of soda.

Hill also noted that boycotts can backfire, too.

Supporters of LGBTQ rights protested the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A, which donated money to groups opposing same-sex marriage, while supporters committed to doubling down on the number of times they dined there.

"They called it the Chick-Fil-A bounce," Hill said.

When it comes to Nike's apparent embrace of the Kaepernick #TakeAKnee movement, Mosher, of Ithaca College, said it's important to keep some perspective. 

He has boycotted Nike merchandise for 25 years because of the company's past history of low wages, child labour and sweatshop-like working conditions at its manufacturing facilities overseas.

The new Kaepernick ad, however, has piqued his curiosity about the company again — which, Mosher suggests, is one small measure of its success.

"This gives me pause," he said.

"Whether it's bad press, or good press, Nike is keeping it in my mind's eye."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong