Nike grabbed a big piece of American mindshare this week with an inspiring ad campaign featuring world class athletes Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and Serena Williams. The sometimes revered, sometimes reviled swoosh-based company demonstrated a clear understanding of what brand master turned VC Mike Troiano opined just today on twitter: "Your brand is not your logo, your identity system, or your tagline. It is the world's collective emotional response to those things, and everything else you do."
Was embracing Kaepernick a smart move for Nike? What would the equivalent kind of daring step be in your business and how would the discussion go about whether to do it? Let's get into this a little bit.
The Kaepernick promo broke records on social media and gave the sneaker+ maker's stock and sales a boost. The video and its tag-line "Don't ask if your dreams are crazy; ask if they're crazy enough" earned nearly 26 million hits on Youtube in a week. An ex-49ers quarterback, Kaepernick has essentially been banned from the National Football League for sparking a protest movement around kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games. His aim was to draw attention to oppression of people of color in the United States. Whatever you make of the protest (this blog and author and brand think it is awesome) you surely know that Nike's choice to embrace it was a big business decision.
Recent scandals over sexual harassment claims and how executives handled them make it clear that Nike is not synonymous with positive virtue in the year of #MeToo or any other time. But its leadership made the decision to align with Kaepernick knowing there would be some amount of backlash from customers, partners and others - like the NFL and the current President of the United States.
Gatorade's 1992 "Be Like Mike" campaign was a very different but similarly epic promotion. In what we love now to call a simpler time, this ad and the Mike in question was as iconic as could be - and a moving video leveraged the personal appeal of a superstar athlete in an unusually personal, emotional way. Jordan at his peak had no strong political message, but a deeply personal message about striving to be great no matter who you are or what you do. The Colin Kaepernick piece is different of course but in some important ways it is very much the same. And the message is not as much be like Colin as it is "Be like Nike."
I had the chance to ask for reaction to the Nike ad from C-Space Chair and renowned expert in business relationships with consumers, Diane Hessan. Here is what she had to say:
Think about how bombarded we are with ads these days. Can you name an ad that made you say, "I want to go out and buy that product"? Do any of those insurance ads we see even move us? And now, we have the courage of Nike (with Wieden & Kennedy) creating something that taps into our emotions. Millions are reading about it, tweeting it, and taking a stand -- and I believe that lots of people right in Nike's target market (youth) will literally go out and buy a pair of Nikes because the brand reflects their values. And don't forget about that fabulous Serena Williams ad from a few days ago which is also part of the campaign. This is an new and brilliant #JustDoIt effort from Nike, and I admire how clear they are about what they stand for. (And besides, I am sure they ran the numbers, calculated how many customers they would gain and lose from this -- and it all worked.)
There are many "ifs" still to be played out for Nike. Still, the emotional and financial response to the campaign has been epic. What is interesting to study now is what Nike believed about its values and what Nike knew about its vision that made this campaign possible. Don't disparage them for making a "calculation" on this about the up or downside they'd see if they went this direction. On the contrary, the "if" every brand of every size should be looking at today (with apologies to Gatorade and Mr. Jordan) is "if I could be like Nike."
As a leader, or an owner or an executive - you have a vision of success. Once you have made a decision about what you (and your brand) stand for and who your important stakeholders expect you to be, ask yourself if these align. Really push.
If they do? Hit the gas. Like Nike.
And if they don't? Well that is a rich conversation we should have. And soon.
Andy Tarsy is Principal and Founder of Emblem Strategic, a public affairs oriented coaching and consulting firm focused on helping leaders create socially responsible strategy and the culture and relationships they need to succeed.