Since he made the decision to kneel during the singing of the national anthem — to protest racism and police brutality — in a 2016 NFL preseason game, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been synonymous with the movement he spawned.
For even longer than that, Nike — whose CEO boldly threw support behind the controversial Black Lives Matter movement in 2017 — has staked its claim as a brand that doesn’t shy away from provocative marketing and is a staunch supporter of athletes.
Scores of celebrities and influencers — actress Mia Farrow, rapper Common and even fellow-Nike athlete Serena Williams among them — praised Nike’s move to include Kaepernick (who’s been on its athlete roster since 2011) in the campaign under the banner: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Conversely, another group — mostly individuals who oppose anthem-kneeling and view it as unpatriotic — called for a boycott of Nike’s wares, with some even opting to burn the brand’s products.
Perhaps the outcry from the latter group should have also been expected: A report by research firm Morning Consult found that anthem-kneeling is one of the most divisive issues for consumers today. Overall, 33 percent of consumers are more likely to have a favorable opinion of a brand that advocates for the rights of protestors to kneel during the national anthem while 38 percent said they are less likely. However, the survey also found President Donald Trump voters having the strongest negative reaction — with 7 out of 10 stating that they’re less likely to spend money on brands that advocate for the rights of protestors.
But industry insiders noted the fact that many were stunned by Nike’s campaign, in and of itself, is surprising.
“I’m not surprised that Nike did this because it’s been in their DNA to be provocative and vocal about social issues — whether it’s environmental or freedom of speech, which this clearly is,” explained Canaccord Genuity Inc. analyst Camilo Lyon. “I’ll point to the shoes LeBron James was wearing during the [2018 NBA Championship Playoffs] that had ‘equality’ on them. Nike is not afraid to take a stand and this is what they’ve done.”
In fact, now more than ever, Nike is far from alone in its bold marketing approach.
Over the past two years — motivated by younger Generation Z and Millennial consumers who expect brands to support social causes — a rising number of fashion brands and retailers have joined public discourse to take a side on key issues. (Outdoor retailer REI has been hugely vocal on environmental issues. Meanwhile, Kenneth Cole, Columbia Sportswear and Amazon are among the firms that lambasted President Trump’s so-called Muslim travel ban last year.)
“This is what brands are doing now,” said Deb Gabor, CEO of Sol Marketing. “They are showing up like people with a set of values and beliefs and when they put those values and beliefs on display by aligning themselves with somebody who is for or against a particular social issue or movement or something people care about, they’re showing the world ‘this is what we value and this is what we believe in.’”
And in the case of Nike’s supposed brand boycott, Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports with The NPD Group Inc., is willing to bet the brand’s biggest detractors on this issue are hardly its target demographic.
“Gen Z and Millennials will respect Nike doing this and they are the core demographic for Nike,” Powell said. “Two-thirds of the people who wear Nike footwear in the U.S. are younger than 35. This is the generation we’re talking about. Nike is really speaking to their consumer here.”
Nevertheless, Nike opened the trading day Tuesday with its stock down 2 percent — leading to legitimate concern over the impact of the brand’s stance on its investor relations and overall business.
For her part, Gabor suggested the modest sell-off may not be related to Nike’s new campaign: “Investors and consumers aren’t necessarily the same audience and I don’t necessarily think that what happens on Wall Street is a direct reflection of consumer sentiment.”
Although Lyon believes some investors may have been spooked by consumer backlash this week, he said the stock hit is likely temporary: “It’s hard to see how this should have a longer lasting impact to the business on the surface of it.”
Another business concern for Nike is its recently-extended partnership with the NFL — making the brand the official licensed apparel supplier for the league through 2028. (In May, the pair announced the extension of their existing partnership, which kicked off for the 2017-2018 football season.)
Via its new campaign, Nike has appeared to have marked an alliance with Kaepernick, who after opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers in March last year, filed a collusion grievance against the league and remains a free agent.
“This [part] is going to be tricky,” said B. Riley FBR analyst Jeff Van Sinderen of how Nike’s Kaepernick move could impact its partnership with the NFL. “One question may be: Which entity needs the other more? At the end of the day, I suspect this will all get worked out in a positive way. However, there could be some bumpy road ahead on this front.”
Lyon and Powell said that they expect little-to-no impact from the ad campaign on Nike’s NFL partnership.
“The last time I checked, Kaepernick was not in the NFL, so I’m not sure how that applies here but interestingly, other people have cited that Kaepernick was one of the top-selling jerseys last year even though he wasn’t playing,” Powell said. “I don’t see this having a material impact on that relationship.”
On the retail side, James Whitner, owner of famed sneaker boutique Social Status, said he’s more proud of Nike’s move rather than concerned about it.
“Business at my level of retail isn’t about dollars and cents. It’s about doing what’s right for your brand, your consumer and standing for your individual beliefs,” Whitner said. “For my business and my relationship with Nike, standing for what you believe in is the business.”
Ankur Amin, CEO of TSG — parent of trendy sneaker boutiques Extra Butter, Renarts, Rise and Rooted — sees consistency in Nike’s choice and its long-time DNA.
“I don’t think [Nike’s decision to include Kaepernick in its 30th anniversary campaign] will impact our business too much, but regardless of what it does, you have to commend the stance that Nike has taken,” Amin said. “They’ve always been supportive of social issues, against social injustices, and athletes first and foremost. This is another example of how they’re just standing by the ethos that they’re formed on. I’m a bigger fan of Nike today than ever before.”
In an email exchange with FN today, a Nike spokesperson described its current “Just Do It” campaign as one that “celebrates some of the most inspirational athletes who have chased their dreams no matter the obstacle or outcome.”
The Swoosh unveiled the campaign last week via a film titled “Voice of Belief,” featuring Serena Williams. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Shaquem Alphonso Griffin are also part of the campaign.
— With contributions from Peter Verry.