Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick is an advertising firestorm. And if you are anything like me, you heard about the ad before you saw the ad; searched for the ad before you knew what it was about or even what brand it was for; and then talked with people about the ad that led to passionate discussion that ultimately had nothing to do with the ad itself. That's because, like every good ad, everyone has an opinion on it. And that's the point.
To the right is the ad. You should watch it if you haven’t yet.
So what are we seeing here? For the first 80 seconds of the commercial, it looks like any other Nike ad. Athletes from all different disciplines facing all different challenges pushing themselves and their bodies above and beyond. Failure is overcome, victory is celebrated, history is made. For the first 80 seconds, this is a standard Nike ad. All that changes when it is revealed that Colin Kaepernick is the narrator you’ve been listening too all along. And that, and that alone, elevates this from an advertisement into a social commentary. Why? Because Kaepernick is currently one of the most identifiable faces of social unrest in the United States. He represents a bent knee during the national anthem. He represents accountability for policy brutality and demand for racial equality. Colin Kaepernick is no longer an NFL quarterback, he is the face of the resistance. Simply having inspirational sports pep talk come out of his mouth changes this from being an ad for an athletic brand to two minutes of a salient call for change. And it works as both. (Although a number of people disagree.)
This is a big swing for Nike, and they connect right in the sweet spot. Many companies attempt to associate their brands with social issues, and many come off as tone deaf. Pepsi most recently experienced this with their Kendall Jenner ad, which is discussed below. And even though a very, very large number of people are incensed by this ad, that doesn’t mean that it is tone deaf. On the contrary, it has struck the right chord for those paying attention and strummed it as loud as possible. Nike is doing all it can to pierce the deafness around it.
A a brand, Nike is forcing its consumers to take a stand. As a buyer of Nike, you can no longer play aloof to the social divisions of our time. Wearing your Nike gear is now a conversation starter - one initiating either a uniting or uncomfortable conversation. In these two minutes, they are saying Nike products protect your body from the elements; and the Nike brand protects your world from complacency. People are only aggravated when they disagree that there are parts of our world that are complacent.
With its track record on awe inspiring advertising, Nike is an athletic apparel brand that has transcended sports to become a lifestyle brand. With this ad, they transcend even that to become an existence-style brand. But how?
Here are a few lessons that we can learn from Nike’s tone-appropriate cause-marketing campaign.
Know What the People You Care About, Care About
Before you venture into taking a stand, you must first know exactly what you stand for. That requires having an unequivocal understanding of who you stand for. Once you know that, go all in on your people. Don’t concern yourself with anyone else. No brand can please everyone, or even most. The goal is to know exactly who your target audience is and to let them know that they mean the world to you. Show your commitment by not only providing the best products for them, but also by reinvesting the money they give you into improving the larger environmental context in which they exist with your products.
There is no doubt Nike has done the legwork to get to know the people it cares about. As Business Insider writes, “…around 67% of Nike's customer base is younger than 35, according to NPD Group via Bloomberg, and as a group it's more ethnically diverse than average.” In addition, “younger customers are more likely to expect the brands they buy from to take a stand as Nike just did, with 60% of millennials identified as "belief-driven buyers" globally, according to a 2017 study by Edelman."
Outside of their customer base, however, Nike is making a lot of people very mad - and that is intentional or at least tolerable. This is a serious topic, and emotions need to be triggered. The key is that none of those that are upset are in their target demographic. Furthermore, the more infuriated the opposition is toward Nike, the more loyal its target customers grow. Nike knows it is no longer frequency that builds brand loyalty, but intensity.
Build Up to a Roar
Taking a stand on something means little unless you have credibility. People need to know that they’re not just your cause of the week.
This was not Nike’s first foray into cause marketing. As Mary Scott, President at UEG marketing agency states in the New York Times: “Nike from Day 1 has really been a brand that has stood up to and stood for things that were important to them and important to their athletes, so I think there’s a little precedence there.”
Precedence is key. Major cause campaigns with strong controversial overtones, cannot be the first time your audience hears about your beliefs. They can only come after a lot of work has been put into developing a consistent message across social, blogs and other platforms. To withstand the scrutiny of both your followers and opposers, companies need to be able to lean on a solid history of clear messaging on the cause.
In his book “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World,” Adam Grant states, “When people sought to exert influence but lacked respect, others perceived them as difficult, coercive, and self-serving. Since they haven’t earned our admirations, we don’t feel they have the right to tell us what to do, and we push back.” Grant is talking about individuals who fail to get their novel - yet good - ideas accepted. Brands should head the same advice.
Drive Social Impact Before You Claim Social Relevancy
Brand relevancy doesn’t mean the brand knows what’s going on. It means they have a hand in influencing what is going on. You have to understand the weight of the issue you are discussing, and ensure your message embodies the sincerity to match. To make people think you are actually putting your neck out on the line, you actually have to put your neck out on the line. You can't play it safe. The respect you will get from your followers is commiserate with the risk they feel you are taking.
This is where Pepsi missed the mark tragically in 2017. Pepsi was desperate to be relevant. They wanted to whip up a culturally relevant ad, so they went into the kitchen and threw a little bit of everything into the pot. Diversity, musicians, youth, protest, dancing, a Kardashian. There was something for everyone. Unfortunately they boiled everyone's social issues down into one, and then claimed to solve them all at once with a soda. That didn’t work for people. The commercial didn’t solve anything, because it didn't understand the breadth of the issues that needed to be solved.
Also, I’ve never seen that many smiling faces at a protest, and certainly never that many open-faced coolers with ice-chilled Pepsi at the ready. It’s just not practical.
Nike on the other hand didn’t comment formally on the issue. It stuck to it’s script and relied on its spokesperson’s reputation to make the point. To whatever associations viewers had to Kaepernick, Nike offered up its historic, indelible slogan, “Just Do It,” as a rally cry to stand up for what you believe in.
Tie Your Brand to the Truth of Honest People, not Honest People to the Truth of Your Brand
You have to find your honesty - “you” being the actual people behind the helm of a company. This is the founders, senior leaders, partners. If your company it going to be cause-related, the people behind the company have to be cause-related. Cause marketing only works when it is sincere. The lifestyles, language and behaviors of those that represent that brand have to be consistent with the cause-related marketing campaign, or it will all soon unravel and hurt the brand more than anything.
Nike outsourced this honesty to Kaepernick. Colin is the credibility prerequisite Nike needed for this ad to not be tone deaf.
Know Your Latin & What Vulnerability Looks Like
Understand what vulnerability looks like for a brand. Many times brands show their vulnerability only when their hand is forced. Think of the litany of apologies we hear from CEOs for brand missteps. The is not vulnerability, however, but rather asking for forgiveness for getting caught doing something.
The best brands know the difference between mea culpa and semper fidelis.
Mea culpa = an acknowledgment of one's fault or error.
Semper fidelis = always faithful / always loyal
Semper fidelis is what Nike did. If they did nothing in this time, if they didn’t make waves, in 18 months from now the should be apologizing for not doing all they could to have the backs of the customers they serve. Instead, Nike is returning the loyalty of its customers by being a brand that would rather be proud than sorry.
You might love this ad, or you might hate it, but there is not much room to be ambivalent on it. And for that, Nike has done good work with this ad.