Image source: Nike's 2018 'Just do it' campaign.

The turn of a new decade has been a rocky one and many causes have been brought to the ‘mainstream' by brands – for some, to change public perception, others as a representation of their guiding principles. Rather than looking at the causes themselves, why, when some brands take a stand does it land, and when others try, it falls flat?

Many brands have been called controversial, some have even embraced it and built their reputation on it, like Vivienne Westwood bringing punk to mainstream or Apple encouraging audiences to 'think differently.’ But there seems to be a fine line that brands toe – especially when that controversy is entrenched in current affairs and the day-to-day culture audiences are a part of.

So when a brand makes a stand, they’re expecting a reaction – whether applause or backlash – to create conversation. 

In sport, we see athletes align themselves with brands through sponsorships, endorsements, the clubs they represent or the 'tools of the trade' that they choose on-field. So, what makes a brand’s decision to endorse – or not – a cause different?

Dream crazy

Image source: Nike's 2018 'Just do it' campaign.

In 2018, two years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the US national anthem to protest racial oppression and inequity, Nike chose to kneel alongside him. 

Launching their 30th-anniversary campaign for the rallying cry 'Just do it', Nike – alongside Kaepernick – brought social activism to the mainstream and took a stand as part of what became the Black Lives Matter movement.

The risks…

For Colin, the backlash from the public was huge and seemingly supported at an institutional and systemic level, with Kaepernick unable to secure a contract with the National Football League since. [1]

Nike had been a sponsor of the NFL since 2012, and with TV audiences for the season growing to over 16 million [2], the campaign could cost the organisation public support, i. e. consumers, as well as system support from the League.

Since 2012, Nike grew significantly with its apparel and service offerings. As a result, share prices increased from $25.875 to $58.54 [3] by September 2016, when Kaepernick took a knee. With Nike's continued growth in 2018, when shares were selling for up to $82.45, the stakes were high.

I am not looking for approval.
I have to stand up for people that are oppressed.

Colin Kaepernick

Embed from Getty Images

The stand…

Nike chose to take a position on one side of the controversy. They took something "controversial", and turned it into a positive and inspiring campaign, backing the athletes and believers who dream crazy and ‘just do it.’ Nike purposefully focused on those 'crazy dreamers' and started a conversation.

Sticking the landing…

In my opinion, this campaign was impactful for several reasons:

  • No obvious product placement. While all of the athletes were in Nike gear, that wasn't the focus, and no 'attempt to sell’ or push a product was made. This was about 'selling' an ideology, a community, membership of a movement bigger than yourself, a movement encouraging you to 'dream crazy.'
  • Nike focused on becoming an ally. They didn't try to speak for, or on behalf of, the affected communities but extended their platform to allow an authentic voice to be heard.
  • And finally, Nike took the risk, weathered share prices dropping to $69.90 (December 2018*) and the #justburnit social media storm [4], to start and continue to be a part of a wider social and cultural conversation.

A conversation that aligns with their original ethos;

Sport for all.


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