Branding with Purpose: Nike’s History of Leading Change  

Brands have the power – and the responsibility – to stand for more than profit. Today’s consumers seek authentic brands that consistently connect with people in relevant ways – even times of strife, conflict and controversy. 

Nike is that brand. They create emotionally-charged, courageous stands that inspire needed and important conversations. Always challenging the status quo, Nike has built more than a brand – they built an international platform for change.  Agree with their positions or not, we must give this iconic brand respect for consistently stepping up during times of controversy with powerful stances on social issues of the moment.  

Let’s examine their history of change-making: 

Addressing Ageism 

In 1988, Nike released their first spot addressing ageism, featuring an 80-year-old runner who ran 17 miles every day of his life. He became the symbol of the ageless athlete – those who, at any age, push boundaries to Just Do It.  


Supporting the Differently Abled 

Craig Blanchette’s story followeda tough, hard-charging, incredibly motivated Olympic athlete with a fierce competitive spirit. Oh, he just happened to be a Paralympian. Nike changed the narrative to focus on their ability versus their disability.   


Spotlighting True Role Models 

In 1993, Nike addressed idolizing athletes head on with a spot featuring basketball legend Charles Barkley famously stating, “I am not a role model. Parents should be role models.” 


Highlighting the AIDS Epidemic 

Never backing away from an emotionally charged stigma, in 1995 Nike featured runner Ric Munoz. The story wasn’t the 80 miles he ran each week or the 10 marathons he ran each year. The real story was that Nike featured an openly gay may who was HIV positive. They did it for one reason – to open an important societal conversation.   


Championing Feminism 

Rising through inequality, Nike launched an anthem for female equality celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX. The voiceover opens, “When I was growing up, girls just didn’t run in public.” 


Dismantling Discrimination 

Nike’s 2017 “Equality” campaign shined a spotlight on the issues of equality on and off the field. Featuring some of the greatest athletes of their time, like Serena Williams and LeBron James, the call to action was clear: “Opportunity should not discriminate. The ball should bounce the same for everyone.” 


Believing in Something 

When Colin Kaepernick was the first NFL player who refused to stand during the national anthem, it ignited a national firestorm. Where was Nike? The brand was standing tall in the center of the controversy announcing a partnership with Kaepernick with ads that took over social media. The mantra was unapologetic: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt”


Inspiring Change 

Today, the world is full of sadness and anger after another innocent black man, George Floyd, died at the hands of a white police officer. Emotions are at an all-time high. How did Nike respond? This time, Nike created an ad that didn’t feature any high-profile celebrities or famous athletes. The just-released spot is raw and real, with black and white typography only, with a music track that sends chills to viewers.  

The spot closes with, “For Once, Don’t Do It.”  

They go on to plea, “Let’s all be part of the change.” 


With so much going on in our world, we are inspired by Nike’s history of bravery. It challenges us as individuals and as an agency to fight for the responsibility to find purpose for the communities, industry and clients we support. We hope this leads to some great discussion with your colleagues, partners and us as we all find ways to create positive change.

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