The triumph of Nike’s renegade marketing campaign with Colin Kaepernick

As a household name around the world, Nike may seem like a brand that has to play it safe. But due to its strong brand ethos, it’s actually able to take greater risks than many other companies in its category. Nike has demonstrated this once again with its latest advertising campaign, featuring the controversial American football player Colin Kaepernick as its poster boy.

It’s difficult to think of a brand that has recently drawn the ire of so many based purely on the selection of a new brand ambassador. The initial response from investors was thoroughly predictable. Within hours of the new campaign’s launch, many shareholders had sold off their stock—resulting in a 2 percent reduction in Nike’s share price.

Institutional shareholders are well known to be a conservative lot that doesn’t like surprises. It’s therefore no wonder that a campaign making a hero of Kaepernick—famous for dropping to one knee during the American national anthem to draw attention to the disproportionate number of African Americans shot by police—is raising eyebrows with those who believe a clear line exists between brands and causes.


One person who has publicly voiced his distaste for the Nike campaign is the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump. Once upon a time it would have seemed odd for a sitting president to weigh in on the pros or cons of a brand campaign. But today’s world is far from normal. We live in an age where the leader of the world’s largest economy is prone to showing his disdain for something by thrashing out a few angry tweets or appearing on a talk show sympathetic to his brand of politics. He swiftly appeared on The Daily Caller lambasting Nike and saying that Kaepernick sent a “terrible message.” (In fairness, while it wasn’t highly reported, the president also remarked, “In another way, [this] is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do.”)

The Nike brand is no stranger to controversy and has a track record of driving awareness through unorthodox marketing activities. One of the most memorable Nike campaigns occurred during the 1996 Olympics, when Nike’s marketers bet against handing over millions in sponsorship fees to the International Olympic Committee to build brand awareness by (yawn) being the “official sports apparel sponsor of the Olympics.” It left that opportunity to rival Reebok, and instead banked on a campaign that culminated in the tagline “You don’t win silver, you lose gold.” Nike leaned toward controversy rather than convention, a strategy that paid off handsomely. It also cemented Nike as a brand unafraid to ruffle feathers in order to stand out in the field.


The events of this past week are evidence, once again, of Nike’s renegade brand persona. Risk and return go hand in hand for the brand, which has etched itself into the minds of millions of loyal consumers through taglines ranging from “Go hard or go home” to “Just do it.”

And while Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign may have been hijacked this week with the hashtag “#JustBurnIt,” the reality is that very few folks in Nike’s marketing department should have been surprised—or concerned—by the response to the campaign.


In fact, I hope that a number of seasoned Nike veterans are quietly rejoicing in the response to this week’s events. After all, how many companies can claim that the leader of the free world has become embroiled in its campaign, ensuring that what might have gone unnoticed suddenly became the highest-trending marketing story of the week?

Not many, that’s for sure.


A different version of this piece was published in Mumbrella Asia (6 Sept 2018). Republished with permission.