Colin Kaepernick right in the eye of the storm

Thirty or so years ago, when Reebok began to dismantle Nike’s dominance in the athletic footwear market, the latter knew things had to change if it were to regain its “top dog” tag.

That brand rethink produced 10 principles, or commandments, which included these three gems: “Our Business Is Change”, “This Is As Much About Battles As About Business”, and “If We Do the Right Things, We’ll Make Money Damn Near Automatic”.

Its founder and chairperson, Phil Knight, said the company “had to say who we were, what we were, and try to build off that – we had to defend those values that we dictated what our persona was as a company”.

For as long as I’ve been aware of the brand, it has been one with an audacious personality, and a brand that aligned itself with some of the greatest sportspeople and franchises. It was an aspirational brand. I wanted to wear Nike because it was the chosen apparel supplier for my favourite football club, Manchester United, and that it was in a marriage with Pete Sampras, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Michael Jordan and Cristiano Ronaldo.

It felt like a brand sending out messages that were true to its promise and personality: just like our athletes and brand ambassadors; we’re the best at what we do, we look good doing it, and we believe in doing right.

Of course, Nike has had its share of gaffes and controversial decisions – it famously dropped disgraced superstars from its roster, including Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones and homophobic boxer Manny Pacquiao. It also has been dogged by allegations of running sweatshops in poor and developing countries. There have even been allegations of sexual harassment violations at its headquarters in Oregon.

What Nike has had to learn, as have a myriad other brands, is that in this day and age, image is everything. They have had to learn that a healthy brand is one that is conscious – one that is more than just a business, but one that is also aware of the sociopolitical climate it operates it.

This week, Nike announced that it had installed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the face of the 30th anniversary of its unmistakable “Just Do It” slogan.

Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the American national anthem before matches – in protest against police brutality against African Americans – saw his career in the NFL end prematurely. US President Donald Trump called his stance “disrespectful”, and Kaepernick bore the brunt of Trumpites.

But, Nike, which has also for the past two years marketed Serena Williams as the “greatest female athlete ever”, has decided to take a crucial stand. It recognises that a successful brand is one that stands for something and, in this instance, the Kaepernick ad says it all: a black-and-white close-up of his face, and emblazoned across his face are the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Two weeks ago, the French Open announced a ban on Serena Williams’s black catsuit, which she wore during her brief run at the Grand Slam in Paris. The catsuit was reportedly created to help her recover during her comeback from giving birth.

In their response to the decision, Nike released another ad campaign, featuring Serena in the same black catsuit, with the words: “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers. #justdoit.”

The response to the campaigns, at least from the black community, has been enthusiastic, and an example of what happens when brands listen and create messaging that produces an emotional and strong response from consumers.

The LA Lakers youngster Kyle Kuzma tweeted: “Boycotting .@Nike because of a man that is trying to make the world a better place shows you where we are as a country still. #Kaep #MoreThanAnAthlete #justdoit”

That was one of many similar responses to the ads. White supremacists in the US, however, have resorted to burning their Nike apparel in protest against their favourite brand standing against police brutality and racism, and all other kinds of bigotry – just as a reminder of how heartless and removed from reality they truly are. To boycott a brand that confronts our society’s inequalities just shows the rotten privilege some people come from.

Luckily, while it has reinvigorated racists, it has also restored our faith that some brands are capable of doing good, in spite of the potential for turbulence – the recognition that “this is as much about battles as about business”.

Nike will surely have a battle on its hands in the short-term, but what we know is that when a brand stands for what is perceived to be right by consumers, it is repaid in loyalty from those consumers.

Positive perceptions mean everything to brands, and even when there is the threat of some backlash, it is always better to know you’ve done the right thing.

If I had a few more notes in my wallet, I’d have gone out today and finally purchased those Air Max 97s – just because Nike made me smile this week.

 

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Shares of Nike fell as calls for a boycott of the sportswear giant gained traction on social media following its choice of Colin Kaepernick as a face for the 30th anniversary of its "Just Do It" slogan.
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