What brands can learn from the Nike – Kaepernick campaign

Marketers sometimes like to take risks. It draws attention to a brand and gets people talking, driving engagement and social media buzz. Sometimes brands need to take risks, challenging the status quo and proving themselves against the competition. But how do you ensure the risk is going to pay off? Learning from those brands that have paved the way is a good place to start.

That Nike campaign

It could be argued that Nike didn’t need to take the risk. A multinational brand, recognised the world over and boasting huge annual sales figures, Nike could have been content to rest on its laurels and continue along comfortably. Instead, it cast Colin Kaepernick – the NFL player at the centre of last year’s controversial movement to kneel while the US national anthem was being played – as the focus of its latest campaign.

Within hours, social media was awash with videos of burning Nike trainers, one former customer even cut the iconic Nike swoosh from his socks. Yet only a week later, after the initial backlash had largely run its course, the BBC reported that Nike sales had skyrocketed, growing by 31%. It appears then that the risk has paid off. So what can marketers learn from that Nike advert about the dos and don’ts of risk-taking?

Your team needs to be prepared to ride the wave

If you’re prepared to take a risk when it comes to running a campaign, you have to ensure you have strategies in place for those moments immediately after you go live. This includes making sure your team is supported and ready to handle any fallout from the launch and be a strong ambassador for your brand in such a crucial moment.

This is something that Nike could have improved. One of its employees gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine describing the initial aftermath of the Kaepernick campaign and the near-chaos that ensued. The employee explained that while Nike has set lines in place to handle complaints for its other, older controversial campaigns, it didn’t have one set for the Kaepernick campaign. In this, Nike should have been more prepared, providing stronger support to its team members who were on the front line of justifying the brand’s campaign decisions.

On this occasion Nike was lucky. The employee told Rolling Stone that ‘a lot of us [at the Nike call centre] have more respect for our company than we had in the past. We feel a big swell of pride that we stood up for something meaningful.’ This loyalty to the brand meant that the team didn’t shy away from the volume and ferocity of complaints, but this level of employee engagement doesn’t happen overnight. Ensuring you have everyone on the same page – from creatives to C-suite executives to those team members in administrative and customer-facing roles – is a must if you’re going to successfully ride the wave of controversy your risk could potentially spark.

Tread a careful line between activism and bandwagon-ing

One risk with becoming embroiled in political topics, aside from the possibility of offending some sections of your customers, is whether your brand will be seen as genuinely engaged with its cause or simply hijacking a movement to sell more products. As an article by The Guardian noted, ‘Nike may be amplifying a courageous voice of dissent, but we should also recognise that it’s in its economic interest to do so.’

On this occasion, Nike seems to have positioned itself on the right side of the line. As a brand which is increasingly bought by young people – The Guardian points out that two thirds of Nike customers are younger than 35 – Nike made a decision that, while risky in the short-term, such a campaign could reap the benefits for years to come.

In addition, as a brand which has previously partnered with other strong, activist sporting figures such as Serena Williams, Nike also carefully avoided appearing to jump on the bandwagon of a cause it had previously not stood by. This was precisely the mistake made by Pepsi in its head-shake-inducing attempt to have Kendall Jenner re-enact the Baton Rouge protests to sell its product back in 2017, which left observers sceptical about the brand’s awareness and sincerity.

Taking risks with your messaging and aligning your brand with a political movement can be a strategic move that, when executed well, can pay off. Learning from those brands that have already undertaken such initiatives is a helpful way to gauge how to pull off an eye-catching campaign that gets people talking, all the while ensuring your brand integrity is preserved.

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