Nike’s decision to make Colin Kaepernick the face of its new campaign is genius.
Think of the Super Bowl ads where you remember the commercial but can’t quite recall what product is being touted. This isn’t one of those. Nike threw down, and hard.
In making Kaepernick the poster for a new “Just Do It” campaign, Nike has burnished its own human-rights cred by embracing “the struggle,” and thumbed its nose at any notions of authoritarian suppression in its relationship with the NFL.
In these highly political times, gestures mean a lot. On social media, people who say they would never have considered buying Nike now are talking about moving to the brand, nattering that is sure to become a groundswell. Will they outnumber the people pledging to boycott Nike? That remains to be seen. As a business gesture, co-opting Kaepernick’s protest movement was also genius.
And yes, Kaepernick needed to do it. Every struggle needs legitimacy, something that comes from having the right people lend an imprimatur. The civil rights movement took off when more white people and politicians got involved, propelling it from regional and partisan, to universal. Suddenly there was power to move mountains and pass legislation.
Kaepernick kneeling became something greater as the gesture spread, just as it was also corrupted by spin as President Donald Trump made it about the flag, the troops and the anthem — and about patriotism. People who knew better said no, it is about injustice, but that argument was lost in a blizzard of presidential tweets and paranoid, knee-jerk NFL owners.
Nike swept all of that away, also taking what appears to some to be a massive business risk.
There will be boycotts. And more presidential tweets. And probably panicked owners wondering about the sensibility of giving an apparel company such a long contract. At the end of it all will be Nike, counting cash and smiling.
Yes, the Kaepernick campaign is political. But it is business first. Kaepernick jerseys were among Nike’s best sellers, and dude wasn’t even on a team. As much as you want to applaud the retailer’s public consciousness at getting behind the struggle, it never would have happened had someone not figured out that the bottom line would be massive.
Selling product is marketing, and the right kind of marketing. Everything is political right now, from coffeemakers to eateries and now, athletic wear. Is this a referendum on Trump and his base? In a way, yes. Nike is betting that the people who will support this move will far outnumber those who won’t buy its product. It is also betting that memories will be short, that people who are allied with the product because it works will have their Twitter tirade but head for the familiar brand the next time they need shoes, or gloves, or a base layer.
But the biggest bombshell that Nike has exploded is that it is changing the dialogue around kneeling and the anthem in a way that a zillion people chattering on social media never could. It isn’t about the troops, it isn’t about a lack of patriotism. We know it isn’t because a trusted brand, with a simple poster and slogan, changed the narrative. Kaepernick’s stance is about risking everything, it’s a symbol for life, and athletics. And it isn’t political, framed in the Nike structure. It’s going for it. It’s — extreme.
Just do it, indeed.
And what of Kaepernick, whose lawsuit against the league is proceeding? What of the people scoffing at him, suggesting that he has sold out, given up his mighty struggle for a handout? People shouldn’t be so myopic. And notice the timing. Right as his collusion legal action received judicial support in denial of a summary judgment request by the NFL, comes the Nike move. As catbird’s seats go, his is lined with ermine, gilded with the finest gold. He can’t lose. Who will lose?
A president and his narrative? For sure. People burning Nike gear that they have already paid for? Indeed. NFL owners? That is a more complex question that would have been a lot easier had they not painted themselves into a corner with a dunderheaded national anthem ruling. They will have to find a way out because Nike wouldn’t have made this move if their lawyers hadn’t scanned that contract with the NFL for any possible exit strategy, and said, “Just do it.”
Nike is now politically legit in a time where everything is about politics. And on the right (fiscally as well as morally) side of history, from Serena Williams and its “Equality” campaign that includes LeBron James, a Muslim fencer who competes in a hijab and a transgender swimmer to the new Kaepernick campaign.
Business people are wondering about potential damage. They’re being logical. Politics isn’t logical. Nor are purchasing decisions. And lest we forget another payoff for Nike as it wages marketing war for star athletes with Adidas: If you’re a pro looking at your next company, who are you going to sign with?