Why Kanye West’s Controversial Relationship with Nike Is a Calculated Marketing Move

Kanye West is at it again.

The musician turned fashion icon has once again ignited a social media maelstrom with his recent posts on Instagram that prominently feature products from Nike, the Adidas endorser’s direct competitor.

On Tuesday evening, West posted a series of images of Instagram, the last of which featured an outfit that included black Nike socks. He also released a teaser trailer for his upcoming “Donda” album, which featured Nike-backed athlete Sha’Carri Richardson, who was barred from competing in the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for marijuana.

West was also spotted earlier this month at Paris Fashion Week wearing Nike socks with a pair of his Yeezy Foam Runners.

As usual, West’s behavior has spurred an onslaught of speculation regarding a possible return to a business relationship with Nike. West created his first Yeezy shoes with Nike in 2007, and then signed a deal with Adidas in 2013. Last year, he signed a 10-year deal with Gap to design clothes and sell clothes under the Yeezy gap label. West still regularly interacts with the Nike and Adidas brands publicly.

According to analysts and experts, West’s behavior is likely a strategic move meant to garner attention for his own music and products rather than signal a return to a business relationship with Nike.

“Kanye is all about controversy so this is a very calculated marketing move,” said Liza Amlani principal and founder of Retail Strategy Group, a consulting company for retailers. “He has people talking and that’s exactly the point. The timing couldn’t be more perfect as his album drops on Friday.”

Amlani explained West’s tendency to create social media controversy as being “purely about marketing and profitability,” adding that it is unlikely that Kanye would jump back to Nike.

“Kanye is under contract, and Adidas will do everything in their power to keep the Yeezy brand as it’s moneymaker,” she said.

While the terms of West’s contract are not public, his constant engagement with Nike is likely prohibited by the agreement, explained Marc Beckman, CEO and founder of advertising agency DMA United. But even if Adidas is upset by West’s antics and it breaches the terms of his contract, the company still benefits if it sells more merchandise for the brand. Plus, it’s all a trademark of West’s enigmatic persona.

“Kanye’s brand includes a pillar that is defined by controversy. This type of behavior only further fortifies that position for Kanye,” Beckman said.

Using controversy to stir up sales might be beneficial for Yeezy. According to Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser for The NPD Group Inc., sales and resale multiples for the Yeezy franchise appear to have slowed as of late, placing the brand in a less-than-great position. In a February report, StockX noted that the average resale price of a Yeezy shoe was $330, marking a roughly 50% drop since 2016, when the average resale price was $611.

Still, he added that “it is very rare for an endorser to promote a competitor’s brand,” and said it is unlikely that Nike would be interested in resuming a business partnership with West, given his abrupt exit from the brand.

Adidas aside, experts agree that the most important brand in West’s portfolio is his own. His  “industry-shifting effect” on fashion and footwear is undeniable, said Dennis Todisco, the founder of fashion Instagram community Outfitgrid, which has more than 750,000 followers. In fact, the external brand to which West is attached is secondary, he noted.

“At the end of the day, Yeezy is its own brand as much as Kanye is his own person,” Todisco said. “Whoever is manufacturing his ideas is almost secondary — whether it’s Adidas, Nike, Gap, or his own atelier – the Yeezy IP is incredibly valuable.”

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