For many brands, the shift to cause marketing represents a new series of ideals and rules they need to address in order to speak to coveted younger audiences. While the permutation may be new, the principles behind the idea are old: when every brand feels the pressure to support a cause, how do individual brands select an authentic cause that differentiates them from the thousands of others “fighting” for equality, “stopping” world hunger and “supporting” underrepresented groups?
For Nike, this meant revisiting its history of discussing social issues, such as disability in the ‘80s, gay rights in the ‘90s and sexism throughout the ‘00s. The hope is that this route will help the brand to confront the rising threat of competitors Under Armour and Adidas as their sales begin to outpace Nike’s.
Colin Kaepernick generated political and athletic controversy after deciding to sit, and later kneel, during 2016 preseason NFL games. His protest against racial violence incited polarizing discussion and debate across the country.
The former quarterback for the San francisco 49ers narrates the two-minute spot with a vocal overlay that speaks to the audaciousness and sacrifice required to succeed as an athlete. A series of vignettes follow that feature the personal and athletic accomplishments of other brand athletes, such as Serena Williams and LeBron James. The advertisement closes with inspiring copy from Kaepernick: “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.”
The advertisement is the second in the “Voice of Belief” series designed to commemorate Nike’s 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan, and the first time Kaepernick has been used in a Nike campaign since 2016. Serena Williams launched the inaugural video of the campaign earlier this week amid mild controversy between herself and the French Tennis Federation. The spot aired during the September 2018 NFL opener between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons.
Nike will feature Kaepernick on several platforms, including billboards, television commercials and online ads. Nike will also create an apparel line for Kaepernick and contribute to his Know Your Rights charity. The deal puts Kaepernick in the top bracket of NFL players with Nike.
What do we stand for?
What they said:
The advertisement incited intense debates among those supporting and opposing Nike’s decision:
“Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” tweeted President Donald Trump.
“We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward,” said Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of brand for North America.
Lessons to be learned:
- Cause marketing is a necessary risk. — The popularity of cause marketing and its evolution in advertising signifies the absolution of the “middle of the road” stance. Brands must decide what they stand for, which also signifies standing against the opposing side and the risk that runs.
While Nike stocks have fallen 3.2 percent after the initial release of the campaign, and #BoycottNike was trending on Twitter this week, The Hill reported that analysts from Apex Marketing Group believe that the new “Just Do It” campaign has generated more than $43 million in media exposure for Nike. Not all brands can absorb the costs that Nike can; however, brands must define their line in order to pursue a strategic direction that remains true to the company and its selected cause.
Know your audience. — Nike stated that it designed the campaign with a “much younger” audience in mind: Generation Z. Much like Millennials, over two-thirds of this generation crave brands that support social causes in an authentic and meaningful manner. Having grown up with the Patagonia’s of the world, Generation Z maintains an even higher standard of brands. Nike knew they had their attention - Nike is the most trusted brand for Millennial (65.2%) and the second-most trusted by Generation Z (69.3%) - they just needed to capitalize on this relationship in a meaningful and impactful manner.
Generation Z puts significant effort into cultivating and curating its identity — especially on social media. As the world’s first digital natives, these consumers see social media as an intrinsic component of their identity and perceive no difference between their digital personas and their real-world identities. They need to be seen supporting their ideals online, just as they do offline. The majority (64%) of Generation Z support Kaepernick’s actions, something they have chosen to be vocal about online.
Beyond the politics, additional strength of this support comes from the diversity of this new generation. This coming one is the most diverse generation to date, and experts predict that, by 2020, minorities will become the majority (50.2%). Diversity serves as an intrinsic part of their identity, and they only recognize it in its absence. It is not the expectation but the norm. Support for Kaepernick is strong among minority groups, and his stand against racial injustice aligns well with the ideals of this demographic.
Work smarter, not harder. — Nike’s strategy for release mirrors this philosophy. Kaepernick posted a visual teaser for the spot on Twitter in anticipation of the full video, which was released online before airing on national television. Generation Z and younger Millennials dominate Twitter and follow celebrities and brands at double the rate of older consumers. Online launch allows the target — Generation Z — to view and form opinions about the campaign in anticipation of the larger audience and a less-favorable reaction. Nike galvanized core groups of supporters and transformed these individuals into staunch advocates of the campaign, poised to defend the brand’s actions from detractors.
Capitalizing on Generation Z’s vocal support allows Nike to utilize an eager group of supporters; however, not all consumers support the brand’s actions. These consumers have been eager to voice their disapproval, leading to the circulation of hundreds of memes, utilizing the format of the Twitter advertisement. The adoption of this element of the campaign into popular culture further demonstrates its strength.
Don’t apologize. — Nike’s decision to court controversy does not come as a surprise for those familiar with its history. The brand’s support for its other athletes, such as Michael Jordan, Ibtihaj Muhammad and Tiger Woods, all came under fire at the time of selection. The brand remains unapologetic about the athletes it decides to support and about these decisions and their results.
The beauty of the campaign comes from Nike’s unabashed stance supporting Kaepernick. Its statement is clear, and unlike other brands’ failed attempts at advocacy, Nike does not co-opt the discussion and/or suggest mild-mannered reconciliation. Kaepernick owns the ad: He provides the voice for the entire spot and was the first to announce it on Twitter.
Timing is everything. — One of the common criticisms of the advertisement calls into question Nike’s delayed support for Kaepernick. Critics question why the brand waited as long as it did to defend one of its athletes and argue that this damages the authenticity at the core of its message. However, waiting to speak to the issue allowed Nike to be political while remaining (almost) apolitical. Consumers have long since taken sides on the original debate behind Kaepernick’s actions, and few people remain undecided about his actions. Having made up their minds, Nike is not significantly impacting the political debate or entering discussion at its most volatile peak.