Last week was big news for Nike who welcomed Colin Kaepernick as the face of their profound new campaign. Hours before the full advertisement had even aired, the positive online synergy was soon joined by heated backlash. Sporting the signature Nike swoosh, pictures of shredded socks and seared shoes caused #justburnit to go viral in hours. In less than a day, Nike’s stock was down 3%.
Although sales eventually increased to 31 percent, the negative reaction to the image supports a fact that history continually reminds us: for many Americans, patriotism is more concerned with fighting against something than for something. Look no further than larger white America’s track record of battling communism, immigration, and black migration for proof.
In this case, their opponent is change. These “patriots” view Kaepernick as un-American despite the fact that he’s using his right of free speech to critique and improve society. Perhaps the true issue is that people who are complicit in a system of racial injustice do not want to be reminded of it while drinking beers at a football game. It’s uncomfortable and jarring; furthermore, it does not affect them. Black people don’t have the luxury of choosing when their blackness causes discomfort or draws them closer to danger.
Sporting events are not only viewed as safe havens from engaging social issues, but also as a neutral place. However, the days of not “choosing sides” are over.
Brands are now aware that in order to connect with young millennial and Gen Z consumers, you must speak to the social issues that matter to them. We’ve seen brands such as Pepsi—possibly due to lack of black representation—try their hand and completely misfire. Nike seems to have done its research. From a bottom line standpoint, securing the lifelong brand loyalty of younger audiences is more important than retaining its aging baby boomer and Gen X demographic. In a hyper-competitive marketplace powered by brands—and complicated by lower attention spans—remaining culturally relevant is more vital than ever. In fact, it’s the only way to younger consumers’ dollars.
This leads us to a fundamental question: Is Nike supporting social causes because the company cares about them or because it’s now profitable? There are reasons to be skeptical. As the most powerful sports brand in the world, Nike’s every move is motivated by financial growth. The company also has a notorious history of exploiting cheap labor overseas (which is much more reason to be up in arms, but I digress).
NBA legend Michael Jordan—the current face of Nike and its highest earner—propelled the brand to international prominence during and after his career. Annually, the company runs the Hall of Famer a check of around $110 million and he remains one of the most influential people of all-time. Due to Jordan’s infamous silence on social issues, particularly racial justice, it’s difficult not to view this as hush money.
Let’s also remember that Nike’s biggest star of the 2000s was Tiger Woods—someone who golfs with 45 and doesn’t necessarily view himself as black. The brand has historically chosen charismatic and transcendent black athletes, but not aligned itself with outspoken trailblazers.
Still, Nike’s choice to back Kaepernick could be the latest evidence of a changing guard. With superstars LeBron James and Serena Williams as its global ambassadors, the brand now has an unapologetically-black man and woman at the helm. During the summer, James opened his “I Promise” school in his hometown of Akron, OH to invest in and empower black youth. He has also relentlessly advocated for racial justice and even verbally-sparred with Trump over police brutality and racial profiling. Williams has also never been shy about expressing her pro-blackness and pro-black womanhood. It is no surprise that these icons were also prominently featured in the full ad.
The inspirational video highlights obstacles and triumphs that would resonate with anyone. It speaks to the issues faced by minority, poor, LGBTQ, disabled, and immigrant communities across the world. This campaign has the potential to make a powerful statement and set a precedent for large brands moving forward: you must say something. With the NFL season set to kick off, Nike announcing its partnership with Kaepernick puts pressure on the NFL and team owners. This seems to be a positive indicator. However, Nike’s campaign should be viewed as a pledge for further action on behalf of social justice causes. For now, let’s pump the brakes on stocking up on pairs of Nikes. This is only the first step.