Nike's Kaepernick campaign isn't a gamble. It's a safe bet.

As trust in traditional institutions declines, belief-shaped voids emerge in our lives. Conveniently, we mightn’t need to look further than our sneakers to find something to fill them with.

2018-10-10 – 5 min read

There’s nothing new about the notion of people needing something to believe in. For centuries prior to the age of Enlightenment, belief and meaning was found in guiding beacons like religion and politics. What was seen as good and virtuous prior to 18th century Enlightenment, was now being examined through Kantian notions of morality, suggesting that individuals are their own rational beacons. This was followed by science replacing the Bible, and reason overtaking faith. 

The idea still rings true today, and many of us believe that meaning is bestowed via our rational understanding of world, free from arbitrary politicking. But perhaps Kant overestimated himself and thus the rest of us, too. As people tend to make decisions through a moral prism of what’s considered right or wrong, maybe it’s the beacons that stand behind those considerations that have changed over time, and not us? Maybe, just maybe, we haven’t all of sudden been conveniently blessed with rationality? 

Considering the social media aftermath of Nike’s most recent campaign, at least some of us certainly haven’t. Instead the social media fallout and drop in Nike’s share price suggests that brands are becoming beaconized, positioning themselves on a moral scale of right and wrong. 

As products of consumerist societies, is it therefore unreasonable to suggest that our search for meaning has become increasingly guided by these behemoths of utility and value?

The (un)holy alliance 

It was in 2016 that Colin Kaepernick decided to routinely protest police brutality and racial injustice occurring in his home nation. Not complying with the pre-game protocol of standing hand-on-heart for the Star-Spangled Banner, the now out-of-work NFL quarterback decided to ‘take a knee.’ That is, he decided to kneel on one knee in a show of defiance, with many players, coaches and staff following suit. 

By doing so, they became part of a movement to challenge. And like all religions, the act and its consequent support sharply divided opinions and beliefs. Herein Nike recognized an opportunity for those very reasons. 

So what was that opportunity? To seek attention and headlines? Of course. To answer to controversy? Sure. But unlike Pepsi’s attempt in April 2017 to tackle similar issues, Nike succeeded in creating a positive experience out of that controversy — something which was believable, and only enforced its beaconhood

However the decision to go with Kaepernick didn’t appear to guarantee that at first, as a market backlash and drop in share price followed the announcement. As people’s belief systems were seemingly in tatters, some proceeded to burn Nike products and document their acts of consumerist arson on Twitter, while others opted for a milder objection by cutting Nike's logo off socks.

Although the split reaction could make you believe that heinous blasphemy has taken place, as if a cartoon artist sacrilegiously depicted the swoosh, that wasn’t of Nike’s concern. Their move was squarely targeted at audiences that share their beliefs. At those who Nike consider most important for the next 5, 10 and 15 years of their business, and ultimately, at audiences that Pepsi failed to address in their shambolic misstep. 

Incidentally or not, the motive of Pepsi and Nike was very much the same. But whereas Pepsi perversely suggested that their product is the answer to structural violence, and by doing so saw the politicization of the brand spiral into outright rejection and meaninglessness, Nike were better informed.

Better in tune with public sensibilities and political values, Nike didn’t propose that they are the answer. Like Kaepernick taking a knee, the brand’s decision generated belief and commanded empathy. It provided meaning to Nike, and for millions.

Investing in sentiment 

What is nonetheless similar in both cases is the growing trend of politicized branding. Or perhaps branding has always been political, but as noted at the top of this piece traditional beacons are on the decline, and thus we have only recently begun to take brands for their word. Beaconhood, check. 

As much as the Kaepernick-coup was an unapologetically opportunistic move from a company with an unimpressive back catalogue of labour rights violations and sexual harassment reports — it also portrayed the standing and value of brands in 2018.

Becoming a beacon of righteousness by investing into sentiments that matter more than sport fits perfectly with Nike’s MO. It just so happens that these sentiments will continue to reign in quarterly revenues between $8-10 billion, giving the world’s largest supplier of sneakers leverage to occasionally sacrifice share price for altruism. 

Though the experience of wearing Nike sneakers hasn’t changed, the meaning of wearing them matters now more than ever. 

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Written by

Alex Yletyinen

Alex is a Content Strategist at Motley

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