Just do it, Kaepernick and the NFL: Why Nike doesn’t care about burning trainers

With Colin Kaepernick's appearance in a Nike advertising campaign making waves globally, SportsPro looks at the commercial reasoning behind the move.

Just do it, Kaepernick and the NFL: Why Nike doesn’t care about burning trainers

Nike is one of the world’s most recognisable brands. ‘Just Do It’ is one of marketing’s most iconic slogans. And since 2016, Colin Kaepernick has become one of the US’ most polarising figures.

The former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback to some is a beacon of free speech and a civil rights activist, and to those have refused to accept the motives of his decision to kneel in protest during the pre-game national anthem he is an un-American traitor.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the sight of Kaepernick’s face at the centre of an advertising campaign celebrating the famous Swoosh and the 30th birthday of its iconic trademark has caused such commotion and debate across social media.

However, there is far more significance to Kaepernick’s appearance alongside fellow National Football League (NFL) players Odell Beckham Jr, the New York Giants player, and Seattle Seahawks’ amputee linebacker Shaquem Griffin than immediately meets the eye.

Beyond the symbolism of the slogan that accompanies Kaepernick’s face – ‘Believe in something. Even if it means giving up everything’ – Nike’s decision to partner with the 30-year-old, as well as handing him an extension to his endorsement deal, carries potentially huge commercial permutations.

The vocality of Nike's campaign shows a brand fully aware of the views of its target audience.

For Tim Crow, former chief executive of sports marketing firm Synergy, it is a sign that Nike is both comfortable with and confident in its own target audience.

“The brand Nike is competing with here in this campaign is not Adidas or Under Armour or New Balance – it’s Donald Trump,” Crow says. “That’s who they’re competing with.

“Like all smart companies, Nike realise that what it makes is not what it’s about. It needs to stand for something within culture. In this instance, it’s on the side of athletes, young black kids, civil rights proponents and people who are against Donald Trump.”

While Trump has since tweeted, mocking that Nike cannot have considered the reaction to the campaign on social media – there were more than 100,000 mentions of #BoycottNike in the 24 hours after its launch – Crow disagrees. He suggests that contrary to any ignorance, the move shows a brand with a clear understanding of its place in society.

The country singer John Rich tweeted a photo of a pair of Nike socks with the brand’s swoosh logo cut out. “Former marine. Get ready Nike, multiply that by millions,” he wrote. However, the content of the tweet is almost exactly Crow’s point.

“They have absolutely realised that their target audience is on Kaepernick’s side,” he explains. “The fact that old, angry, white dudes are burning their Nikes – they don’t care.

“They have made the decision that if those people don’t want to buy their brand then that is fine. The people who do want to buy their brands are younger and more influential and they are the guys that they want.

“They think this will see them on the right side of history and, on top of that, that the consumer that they care about most of all is in the same place. On the other side, the consumers that disagree with them will probably never agree with them anyway and they are not worried about alienating them.”

Nike's campaign is aimed at Donald Trump rather than any of the apparel giants' traditional rivals, says Tim Crow.

So perhaps Michael Jordan's famous (and possibly apocryphal) quote that "Republicans buy sneakers, too" is dead in the water.

It is a perspective that Nnamdi David, strategy director at communications firm MullenLowe Mediahub, supports. “This is incredibly brave,” he says. “Nike are essentially saying, ‘Our audience, our customers, our influencers are people who believe in this, and if you don't then you are not our audience’.”

Research backs up both Crow and David’s assertions, with more than two thirds of Nike wearers in the US under the age of 35. A recent survey from media company Morning Consult suggested that urban, young people were more likely to support the right of athletes to kneel during the anthem.

Kaepernick, of course, currently cannot be seen kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner as he has been without an NFL contract since opting out of his deal with the 49ers in March 2017 in order to become a free agent. He had sparked controversy during the 2016 preseason when he began to kneel during the pregame national anthem, in protest against police violence against African-Americans. Three years beforehand, he had led his team to the Super Bowl.

That he has not played an NFL game since has caused enormous controversy in itself. Kaepernick is in the process of pursuing a collusion case against the NFL, with the quarterback claiming that team owners have blacklisted him – an offence that goes against the terms of the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

It is the current legal situation which – perhaps – makes Nike’s decision to back its man so publically at this juncture all the more intriguing.

Nike is no ordinary partner of the NFL. It is the official apparel supplier of the United States’ most-watched sports league, providing the jerseys for each and every one of the 32 teams. The NFL’s response thus far has been respectful, emphasising the importance of the social values that Kaepernick embodies. Even so, it is, commercially – at least, an incredibly bold move.

Crow quite simply believes it is the sign of a brand doing what it does best.

“They’re getting back to their roots,” he says. “What it really shows is the power of a brand standing for something and a brand standing up and having a point of view, whether you agree or disagree with it. Look at the amount of coverage and the amount of positive sentiment that this has generated for Nike – outside the USA in particular.” Indeed, Kaepernick had received more than one million responses on social media within hours of the campaign going live.

To those in the US who have never been able to embrace Kaepernick’s cause, Nike’s decision will continue to represent a betrayal of a major partner, with the former 49er still wrapped in a legal battle with the league that could well reach court.

There will be boycotts on Nike products in some quarters, while the #JustBurnIt hashtag has seen footage of Nike sportswear being set alight. The truth it seems is that Nike do not care. This campaign will have been thoroughly discussed, with studies into the effects of previous far-right product boycotts almost certain to have taken place.

As David says: “This is a brand that, in the midst of one of the most volatile global political climates, chooses to involve itself. This is a brand that stares at a social issue and jumps off the fence.”