Colin Kaepernick and Nike's Long Game

When the shoe smoke dies down, the brand will still be standing

Sep 06, 2018

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – After the stock market dip and the protests on social media, the core sentiment behind Nike’s controversial new ad campaign will remain standing, likely taller than it would have if not for the debate it touched off. That’s Maryland Smith marketing professor Henry C. Boyd III’s view of the ongoing squabbles over Nike’s latest advertising move.

Nike on Monday night revealed via Twitter that it had selected former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a face of the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign.

The highly circulated black-and-white ad features an extreme close-up of Kaepernick’s face and the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Those words, in keeping with the sports gear maker’s “Just Do It” mantra, seems a bold nod to Kaepernick’s ongoing lawsuit against the National Football League, which he accuses of colluding to freeze him out of the league. Kaepernick had become a lightning rod for the league, for taking a knee during the national anthem during the 2016 season, in a protest against incidents of police brutality directed at African Americans.

“By embracing Kaepernick’s cause, Nike is aligning its brand with defiance. It’s a calculated risk,” Boyd says. “In the short term, there will be backlash by some disgruntled consumers. Case in point, shares of Nike dropped 3.2 percent on Tuesday. But Nike’s playing the long game. Five, 10 years from now, after this irons out, the brand will be looked at as being on the right side of history.”

Boyd says there are parallels throughout sports history, adding, “just think of the legendary career of Muhammad Ali.”

Standing on religious convictions, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War. His 1967 anti-war stance drew a three-year ban from professional boxing and heat from writers, politicians and the public at large who labeled him anti-American, a traitor. Ali’s dissent today, Boyd notes, “is widely viewed as courageous and quintessentially American and reflects Kaepernick’s case: Both locked out of their professions in their prime athletic years for taking political stands and staying true to their convictions.”

That’s not to say the road was easy for Ali. Nor that it will be easy for Kaepernick. Nor for Nike, for that matter.

Nike’s Kaepernick ad reportedly inspired some 1.2 million tweets. Many were negative, including widely shared videos of consumers setting their Nike shoes and clothes on fire, as #BurnYourNikes trended on social media. 

Brands called out by hashtag movements like the recent #BurnYourNikes face not just a potential loss of sales and stock value, but also a rising likelihood that customers would go out of their way to lie, cheat and steal from them, says Maryland Smith marketing professor Amna Kirmani.

Her recent research shows that consumers who disagree with a corporation’s corporate social responsibility campaigns or their political statements are more likely to try to cheat the company.

Some will “wardrobe” clothes – in other words, buying them, wearing them to an event and then returning them to the store for a refund as if never worn. Others will lie – about a child’s age at an amusement park, for example – to get a discount they don’t actually qualify for.

Brands today have to stand for something – consumers don’t like when they don’t, she explains. But choosing what to stand for, when even seemingly innocuous causes can engender fervent opposition, is hard. And it often involves calculated risk.

“Notwithstanding the recent U.S. consumer backlash, Nike remains a global brand,” Boyd notes. “This being so, Nike understands that most of its customers around the world are not likely not harbor strong feelings, either way, about Kaepernick.”

The United States may be the brand’s biggest market, but it nonetheless accounts for less than half of its total global sales.

“Ultimately, this move by Nike speaks volumes about being fearless,” Boyd says. “As a storied brand, Nike could have easily taken the safe road by not aligning itself with Kaepernick. But the sports behemoth has crossed the rubicon. And I am convinced it’s going to pay huge dividends down the line.”



About the Expert(s)

Henry C. Boyd is a Clinical Professor in the Marketing Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also a managing director and principal at Ombudsman LLC, a diversified consultancy. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin.


Amna Kirmani is the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include ​morality, persuasion knowledge, ​online communication, ​and branding. Her work has been published in several journals, including the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Consumer Psychology. Her papers have won the Paul Green Award in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Maynard Award in the Journal of Marketing, and the Best Paper Award in the Journal of Advertising. She is ​Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Consumer Psychology​ and forthcoming Co-Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research.

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