What Kaepernick taught us about marketing

What Kaepernick taught us about marketing

by Christian Bolorinos

Posted on June 19, 2020

On August 14, 2016 Colin Kapernick took a kneel, instead of standing, during the national anthem. This was an extremely controversial move, and Americans were quite polarized on it. Some viewed it as Kapernick being unpatriotic, even “breaking federal law”. Others saw it as initiating a much needed conversation about race relations, and Obama declared that Kapernick was “exercising his constitutional right”. Either way, the move caused a stir in the NFL, and Kapernick was never signed again by another team. At the time of this incident, Kapernick was already partnered with Nike. However, the partnership was crystallized when in 2018 Nike launched their “Dream Crazy” campaign. It featured Kapernick’s face with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” 

This was obviously a reference to his initiating of the US National Anthem Protests, as well as an acknowledgement to the fact that the incident did, in all likelihood, ruin his career. Through this advert Nike was unequivocally taking sides on several massively divisive issues in the US; among them patriotism, racism, and police brutality. And not only that, but through this advert Nike was introducing politics into the NFL, breaching one of the great taboos in sports.

The advert obviously had a tremendous backlash, probably equal in scale to the original protest in 2016. It polarized Americans into two camps, those who applauded the statement, and those who were horrified by it. Fox News host Tucker Carlson said of Nike that “the company's latest campaign will ultimately lead to the destruction of American society”. Nike shoes were burned in protests, and preachers took to literally tearing up Nike products on the pulpit. At first glance, this seems like a poor decision. Is it ever good when destroying your products becomes a hashtag? Some thought that the move would ruin Nike. Some believed that Nike, like Kapernick, had sacrificed everything for the sake of making a statement. However looking back on the event two years later shows that both these opinions are poorly informed. 

Nike’s target is primarily 15 - 40 year olds, usually urban, and while they target both genders, they are particularly interested in expanding their women’s segment. While the US is divided roughly through the middle in terms of political alignment; younger people, women, and urban populations are more likely to be democrats than republicans. This means this move was likely to be supported by the majority of Nike’s target demographic. Nike has been aware of this for some time, and had been flirting with the idea of taking a political stance with their sports hijab advert of the previous year. 

There is a growing pressure on brands to have philosophical and political stances. The idea of “voting with your dollars” is increasingly popular, and a growing number of people globally believe that brands should choose sides on political issues. Customers in the US are increasingly concerned about the political views of the brands they purchase from. By aligning themselves with the US National Anthem protests, Nike was telling most of their target audience that they shared the same interests, the same political stance, and the same vision of the future. In a classic central elaboration, they also were telling the American left that by buying Nike products they were supporting civil rights, and voicing disapproval of the current administration. The #justburnit hashtag and boycotts further fed into that narrative by convincing people that Nike was under attack, and needed their support.

Another technique this advert utilizes powerfully is the Conversion theory. The conversion theory states that the voice of the minority is much more powerful. This advert succeeded in turning Nike, a multinational corporation and the most highly valued brand in sports; into the voice of the trampled on underclass. Using this technique in the political climate of the USA in 2018 was incredibly effective, as there is a growing mistrust of multinational corporations. By putting their brand behind Kapernick, they managed to convince the Occupy Wall Street generation that Nike was different from the rest of corporate America. How could they not be, when the pulpits that were tearing up Nikes were the same ones that had fought against civil rights and marriage equality. Nike not only cared about the plight of America’s oppressed, they were in the trenches with them. And by extension, so was everyone who bought a pair of shoes from them. 

The advert, like almost every sports advert, also uses social influence. This is a man who was respected and revered by thousands of sports fans. He was a talented athlete who was the star of countless events that Americans grew up watching adoringly with their friends and family. And here is Nike, sharing the stage with him. Not only that, but Nike and Kapernick defied Donald Trump together. They fought together in a revolution. That association gives Nike a special kind of clout, or even street credit that just can’t be bought. 

Fox News predicted that this move would be the company's downfall. However, much to their chagrin, the company saw a 5% increase in their stocks over the next 3 weeks, and a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales over the following year. This might not have been the outcome that Kapernick had expected, and it definitely wasn’t what president Trump and Fox News had been hoping for. For Nike, on the other hand, it seems like it went just according to plan.  

Get in touch