Nike have recently announced a new marketing campaign centred around the somewhat divisive figure of Colin Kaepernick, famous for “taking a knee” as an American football player, and for some time unemployable as a consequence. It’s a controversial move, with some American football fans reacting by posting pictures and videos of them cutting up or burning Nike goods on social media.
So is this a dangerous strategy for Nike or a brilliant piece of marketing? Here’s why I think this is more about branding than marketing, and that in terms of branding this is brave (and values-driven) branding. Nike is named after the Greek Goddess of Victory, and fits very clearly in the Warrior archetype (in TapestryWorks’s StoryWorks framework), encouraging people to have the courage to push themselves beyond their limits and overcome their fears.
In the past they have focused on elite athletes and sports performance to communicate this message, although they have increasingly broadened this to tell the story of normal people (not professional athletes) having the courage to overcome their fears. The Colin Kaepernick messaging pushes beyond sports (although using a sportsman) to talk about the importance of bravery and courage to stand up for what you believe in.
In pushing this message, Nike are broadening the meaning of their brand values, beyond “performance” to the broader message of “having the courage of your convictions” and “believing in yourself” which goes far beyond sports. While the new message is consistent with their previous advertising, and still uses an athlete as spokesperson, the message is about bravery in its broadest sense, applying to a wide range of contexts.
In addition, in pushing this controversial message, Nike are embodying the values that they communicate and taking a stand. They are being courageous in standing for something, even though they know that some of their existing customer base will be unhappy. Whatever your politics, and your view of how cynical they are, Nike are standing up for something whatever the consequences. They are embodying bravery as a brand value. There is a heated debate in marketing about the importance of brand purpose, but I think it misses the point. Brand purpose can often seem focused on being worthy, and tying brands to issues of social responsibility. I think values are more intrinsic and more important. Whatever you do, believe in something.
Be they brave, courageous, cynical or manipulative, Nike are taking a risk. That’s what Warriors always do. Whatever your opinion, Nike are living and expanding their brand values.
There have been a range of reactions to Nike’s move since they first announced it, from the highly positive (“good that they are taking a stand” or “they are being very human”) to the strongly negative (“they are committing commercial suicide” or “the video spot sucks”). In some ways the strength and variety of reactions justify Nike’s decision. As Bill Bernbach wrote, “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”
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As of three weeks later, it hasn’t hurt Nike’s share price either, which has increased the company’s value by 6 billion dollars (on the back of a more than 60% rise in sold-out stock).