Opinion

Nike is right to stay the course with non-conformist icons like Colin Kaepernick

The contentious ad with the rebellious NFL player is purely a manifestation of Nike’s brand purpose, something that has nourished its iconic and non-conformist stature for decades – writes Tom Doctoroff.

Nike’s decision to feature Colin Kaepernick in its latest campaign is a courageous and commercially-wise decision. In standing behind an iconoclastic athlete, who insisted on kneeling during the national anthem to protest against racial injustice, Nike places its hand on its own heart.

The copy – ‘Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything’ – is bold stuff given the former San Francisco 49ers player’s inability to secure another National Football League gig.

Of course, the Conservative backlash against ‘unpatriotic’ messaging has been immediate. ‘#BoycottNike’, ‘#JustBurnIt’ and other hashtags that make boardrooms nervous have proliferated. The brand risks a short-term loss in sales with the background of an increasingly polarised American political landscape.

But actually, there are perfectly rational reasons – some would say cynical – to embrace Kaepernick and his progressive cause. The Nike campaign may fairly be said to be a shiny object that distracts attention from the company’s perceived moral failings for one.

Headlines criticising Nike’s corporate citizenship are somewhat ubiquitous. They frame articles exposing a culture that allegedly tolerates sexual harassment, unequal pay and exploitation of blue-collar workers around the world.

In fact, last year many American colleges saw students protesting against Nike’s refusal to give independent inspectors access to its factories. Therefore, the Kaepernick campaign could appear calculated, a piece of work designed to revive Nike’s status as a values-driven company.

But the campaign does speak directly to Nike’s core audience, young millennials – a generation significantly more multicultural and tolerant of self-expression than those that went before.

Polls shows that, far more than any age cohort, they vehemently oppose United States President Donald Trump’s retrograde and tribal ‘America First’ populism.

Indeed, the Kaepernick campaign implements a strategy that in one bold, dramatic stroke places the Nike brand exactly where its demographic consumer base believes the right side of history to be.

But let’s give credit where credit is due. Business imperatives are just part of this story. They don’t underpin it. Nike grabbed an opportunity to make a statement about what it believes in. The ad is a manifestation of its rebellious brand purpose, one that has nourished its iconic and non-conformist status for decades.

Nike lives and breathes the ‘Just do it’ spirit across all media, online and offline experiences. It attracts a community of brand advocates drawn together by common passions and purpose. ‘Just do it’ is not just a tagline; it’s a belief. Almost a religion for those in the Nike family.

For the mantra is not simply a call for everyone to participate in sports. It has always been a rallying cry to buck convention and define oneself as independent of society. Through Nike, though a long-term relationship with a brand that has forged a meaningful role in life – a paraplegic can ignore preconceptions and compete in a long-distance marathon.

The short woman can defeat the trash talkers on the basketball court. Nike’s spirit didn’t appear out of thin air or drip from a Twitter feed. It is the exquisitely refined vision of Phil Knight, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer. Nike has simply reinforced it at every level and in every corner of the organisation for some 40 years now.

It is certainly true that in order to both sustain a price premium and fuel future growth, brands must deepen relationships with consumers over time. Relevance is sustained across four dimensions: ruthless pragmatism, pervasive innovation, customer obsessions and distinctive inspiration.

In the US for example, Nike is beaten at this only by digital powerhouses such as Amazon, Netflix and Android. And its ‘distinctive inspiration’ – that is, the extent to which a brand is driven by purpose, a commitment to make a positive contribution to the world at large – is off the charts.

Brand purpose – a commitment that can’t be faked – is the source of growth. It is a centre of gravity; cohesion that justifies product expansion, consumer loyalty and price premiums. It also shields companies from inevitable missteps, which a diversified active wear brand such as Nike is bound to make. People forgive brands they love.

In the future, Nike should continue to commit itself to the values that have fuelled its growth. It must not waver from celebrating heroes who dare to define their own identity, independent of external judgment. And there is no doubt it should also pursue a corporate responsibility agenda that reinforces its brand purpose. Dare I say. Just do it.

Tom Doctoroff is chief cultural insights officer at brand consultancy firm Prophet.

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