While those lucky enough to be off on Labor Day across the country sat in airport terminals, in traffic or waited on train platforms, Nike quietly dropped one of its biggest ads of the year—or perhaps, of the past 30 years.
Said ad stars Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback and former San Francisco 49er, and it’s part of a milestone campaign for the brand to mark the 30th anniversary of Nike’s iconic “Just Do It” slogan. The campaign also features ads starring Odell Beckham Jr., Serena Williams, LeBron James and other groundbreaking athletes.
“‘Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything’ is as good as it gets for brand slogans, and it couldn’t come from a more fitting and relevant athlete,” noted Chris Allieri, principal at New York-based communications and marketing consultancy Mulberry & Astor. “Their intention is to be timely and likely to do the right thing. Sometimes that outweighs any potential brand fallout.”
The timing of the ad, of course, is somewhat poignant, as Kaepernick is currently suing the NFL for allegedly pushing him out of the league and systemically preventing him from signing with a new team. Kaepernick is arguing that this move is a punishment for the on-field protests against police brutality, which he first began in 2016. The Nike ad makes a direct nod to Kaepernick’s ongoing legal battle with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” printed across the black-and-white headshot of the athlete. Kaepernick’s suit against the NFL argues just that: since he engaged in a protest fueled by his beliefs, a halt was put on his football career.
Those protests of police brutality began at the start of the 2016 season, when Kaepernick sat—rather than standing, as is traditionally done—as the Star-Spangled Banner was played ahead of a preseason game. Following the game, Kaepernick explained his decision, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” Later on in games during that season, he kneeled as the national anthem was played. As the season went on, other players started to join him. Even in 2017, when Kaepernick became a free agent, more and more players kneeled for the national anthem, and the move caused controversy throughout the NFL, from the top levels of its leadership to its sprawling national fanbase.
Just as Kaepernick’s protests garnered a mixture of attention, praise and blowback, Nike’s ad received much of the same. On social media, some users shared videos of themselves burning Nike shoes or cutting the Nike logo off their socks in response.
But any backlash is likely worth it. Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing consulting firm Metaforce, said that in today’s world, a brand must take a stand—even if it means alienating some of its customers—in order to not only to remain relevant but to capture consumers’ attention. “Brands that try to please everybody become invisible in today’s marketplace,” he said. Backlash, he said, is inevitable, no matter what you do. “No matter what you stand for, you’re going to ruffle feathers and upset users. Some consumers will disappear, but others will become even more passionate. It’s better to have people passionate one way or the other than people ignoring you.”
Brian Salzman, founder and CEO of relationship marketing agency RQ, agreed. He said that the ad made a moment for Nike, calling it an “epic example of brands creating culture.” He added that “just like people, brands have to have a purpose and soul—and this is what Nike continues to do.” Having this consciousness often further endears people to the brands they already love and can introduce them to new ones, too.
“People are looking for brands not to just be purveyors of product—they want to know what brands stand for,” David Srere, Siegel Gale co-CEO and chief strategy officer, agreed.
And making sure that soul really shines through is key to making an ad like this work, according to Adweek Advisory Board member and editor-in-chief of Allure Michelle Lee. “We’ve all seen big corporations try to latch onto movements in a phony way but this feels wholly authentic to Nike,” she said. “They’re a huge global voice in sports, and a statement from them has the power to influence culture at a time when so many others are trying to play both sides.”
Nike is also a brand with a strong foundation and a loyal—and large—customer base, which makes withstanding any criticism it gets easier. As Salzman said, “Nike has a brand purpose that resonates time and political issues, and this communication will live on light years beyond this time.”
This ad doesn’t mark the first time Nike pushed the envelope in its marketing, either. In the ’90s, Michael Jordan served as the face of the brand at a time where few black men did in the sports world. The brand’s past and internal resources also mean Nike is well-prepared to take any negative feedback in stride.
“Nike knows exactly what they are doing,” Allieri said. “Any blowback should not and will not come as a surprise.”
It’s a good thing Nike had the ability to prepare, as the company was facing a ticking clock when it came to putting out the ad. Kaepernick has been Nike-sponsored since 2011 (five years before he first kneeled during the national anthem), and while he’s been in Nike ads in the past, he hadn’t been used in marketing materials for a few years. According to Yahoo! Sports, Adidas and Puma both engaged in internal talks about the possibility of signing Kaepernick if Nike didn’t renew his endorsement deal.
Going forward with the renewal, and subsequently, this particular campaign, is likely not only a safe bet for Nike in the short-term but also in the long haul. “Brands getting involved in public discourse isn’t just good for the brand, but good for business,” Yadira Harrison, co-founder of marketing consultancy Verb, said.
Plus, “it takes a lot for a piece of advertising to generate enough conversation that it trends across social media,” noted Taco Bell CMO and Adweek Advisory Board member Marisa Thalberg. “Featuring Kaepernick was certainly a calculated risk for Nike. The lens I put to it is: Was it a risk that fits the equity and voice of the brand? My take is that it really is, and in that sense, [is] well worth it. It didn’t seem opportunistic to me; it felt like a bold expression of their DNA.”
Predictions for the campaign’s long-term impact on the brand also serves as a reminder of that old adage: There’s no such thing as bad press (further proved by the fact that Nike’s social media mentions were up 135 percent after debuting the ad, according to social media analysis firm Talkwalkwer). Even if some fans walk away, ultimately, the ad puts the Nike name at the center of the conversation—and clearly, Nike is confident the ad will stand the test of time.
“[Nike has] a long history of challenging people’s conventions to push both athletes and culture further,” Luke Bonner, owner of sports consultancy Power Forward Sports Group, said. “Ultimately, they know that long-term, they will have a place on the right side of history by being a Kaepernick ally, who stands to be one of the most influential athletes of this generation.”