Kaepernick: Nike's New Jordan

In the early 80's when the image of the black man was still largely scary, intimidating, savage and unsuitable for mainstream America, Nike took a huge risk in recruiting Michael Jordan to be the face of the company. That turned out to be it a risk that paid off immensely at the time, and continues to do so today.  The 1984 Air Jordan campaign, still toted as one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time, grossed 3.1 Billion dollars since launching and continues to earn Michael Jordan over 100 Million dollars annually today. Jordan was one of mainstream America's first introductions to a humanized black man with agency and within context. He was a creature of colour beyond the one-dimensional caricatures of a thug or coon often seen in media. The thing is, although it was Jordan that ultimately broke through the racial ceiling, it should have been Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before him, but no company in corporate America was ready to place that bet.

With careful messaging and the full power of Nike's PR team, Michael Jordan became a globally celebrated symbolic figure that transcended racial and economic divisions. What Nike did on Monday night with the announcement of Colin Kaepernick as the face of their 30th anniversary 'Just Do It' campaign is nothing new. The glamorization of the athletic spectacle in the 80s breathed subjectivity to the Black-American experience, catapulting their humanity and culture into the mainstream and demanding a level of respect and acceptance that challenged pervasive racial attitudes at the time.

#JustBurnIt and #BoycottNike may trend temporarily. Nike is unafraid. This is what Nike does. Most companies prefer to steer clear of controversy, but Nike has long-understood and reaped the benefits of participating in the discourse of cultural dialogue. In other words, they ascribe to the old mantra that 'all publicity is good publicity' and have already earned an estimated $43 million dollars worth of coverage since Monday's launch.

A recent study by the CMO Network showed that the majority of large brands prefer not to get involved with political issues, and for good reason. By taking sides on a polarizing subject brands risk alienating segments of their consumer audience and that's never a good thing when it means risking a hefty fraction of their bottom line - or is it?

Of course, this isn't Nike's first time at the proverbial cookout. The company has been around since the 60s and has been a leading retailer of the athletic apparel space, you better believe Nike has poured millions into marketing research to figure out what works and what doesn't. In the past, they've aligned themselves with other controversial causes like women's rights and HIV advocacy  (I'd like to point out these were both taboo subjects at the time, yet are considered no-brainers today). The romantic in me wants to believe that this move was solely driven by a commitment to take a stand against racial injustice, particularly, the alarming rates of police brutality against African-Americans. However, the Marketing geek in me knows this is seldom the case when it comes to business. Not to minimize what Nike is doing here after all the repercussions of their bold move were felt within the early hours of Tuesday afternoon with stocks dropping by 3.16%  eventually closing at $79.65. (Update: Nike's stock closed at 79.92 on Wednesday. Heres another fun fact nowhere near as widely circulated as those Nike apparel bonfire photos: Puma and Addidas's stocks both dropped by over 2% on Monday as well).  This was a very calculated move the retail sports giant is hoping to pay off in the long run.

So how did they do it? What numbers were crunched, focused groups held, archetypes evaluated before Nike made this move? 

Nike knows its customer base - or at least, who it wants to be its future customer base. Kind of like the same evil genius with McDonald's kid-friendly products and play space, or those candy cigarettes and tobacco company ads back when the majority of Americans would not have batted an eye at pregnant women and minors picking up the habit. This is important because Nike's grip on the teen demographic has been weakening in recent years with Adidas quickly gaining ground with that audience and surpassing sales of the Jordan brand in 2017.  

Yes, some antiquated conservatives with a lack of understanding of the intersectionality of race, class, and economics clinging to Jim Crow era nationalist beliefs are angry. However, they have never been Nike's core demographic. Nike is betting future generations will not feel this way. They know who they're targeting and are hoping to be on the "right side of history" in 5, 10, 20, 100 years from now. Kaepernick currently has an approval rating of 46% among Nike customers in general although his rating is only 34% in the general public.  This is the power in knowing your audience. Nike is betting that although this move might be a turn off to some, the attraction of a whole new and expanded key audience will rally behind them and make up for whatever they've lost in another demographic. 

Given that nearly 75% of African Americans approved of Kaepernick's protest, using an unapologetically, afro-donning civil rights activist as the face of a major campaign was less of a gamble and more of a tactful consumer insurance move for Nike. So while some economics-failing, twitter dwellers are destroying property they have already paid for, other segments (myself included) are basically Nelly and his crew in the clip below.

Knowing your audience is critical to making effective strategic marketing moves. Numbers reveal a lot and will help you leverage your target audience's wants, needs, and preferences into substantial business gains. 

What do you think of Nike's decision to #Justdoit and make Kaepernick the face of its new campaign?


Till Next time,

Keep rising,