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Nike’s gamble on Kaepernick ad shows Just Do It mentality

Big brands often make bigger moves. In the aggressive fight for market share, high-profile brands often run from controversy. Nike, however, sent shock waves this week by releasing a controversial ad featuring Colin Kaepernick. He’s one of several well-known athletes featured in the campaign showcasing “athletes who have overcome struggles” for the 30th anniversary of its infamous tagline “Just Do It.”

Kaepernick became a lightning rod after kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism while playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Now smack in the middle of a heated legal battle with the NFL, Kaepernick alleges that the NFL’s 32 teams colluded to deny him a player contract.  Last week, an NFL arbitrator agreed to a formal hearing, continuing the emotionally-charged legal battle.

Nike went bold, emotional and all in. A black and white closeup photo of Kaepernick’s face with a poignant headline – “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.” launched on Twitter. A larger than life billboard on top of a Nike store in San Francisco was placed overlooking Union Square – where Kaepernick was once the quarterback. Nike announced it will now create an apparel line for the player who is still not on any NFL team and contribute to his charity, Know Your Rights.

Leo Burnett, well-known as the father of advertising, once said “Let’s gear our advertising to sell our goods, but let’s recognize also that advertising has a broad social responsibility.” Nearly 50 years after his death, Burnett is still revered for his approach to advertising. “A company in which anyone is afraid to speak up, to differ, to be daring and original, is closing the coffin door on itself.”

Nike launched more than just an ad campaign – the company ignited an intense national debate. Trending on every major network, media outlet and social outlet, the response to Nike’s campaign is as divided as the seemingly endless political debates in our country.

So, was Nike’s aggressive political stand a marketing success or political suicide? Depends on who you ask. One day after launching the spot, Nike generated $43 million in media exposure, according to Bloomberg. Yesterday, Nike’s stock fell, but so did Adidas’ stock. Consumer emotions ranged from outrage to defiant support. On social media, #burnyournikes trended as consumers cut off the iconic swoosh logo from their apparel. Other consumers joined the debate by mocking those who burned Nike’s apparel and fighting back aggressively. Some athletes on Nike’s roster took to social media in support. Serena Williams Tweeted, “Especially proud to be part of the Nike family today. #justdoit” while NBA player LeBron James said, “I stand with anyone who believes in change … and I stand with Nike every day, all day.”

Given that nearly two-thirds of Nike’s customers are under 35 years old and are more racially diverse, some media analysts believe Nike is targeting millennial and Gen Z consumers who often want their brand to take active social positions. Will Nike be known for the single most disastrous campaign in sports history or for the most talked about campaign for decades? The 2018 NFL season begins.