Earlier this month, mega-brand Nike unveiled controversial sports star Colin Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign.

In a tweet that has since generated over 900,000 likes, Kaepernick stated simply “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. The following day Nike launched a two-minute film featuring Kaepernick alongside other worldwide famous basketball, football and tennis players. In the US, the ad aired as a TV spot during the NFL season opener.

Kaepernick is a controversial figure, best known for being the first NFL player to kneel in protest during the national anthem. He was derided by Donald Trump and others for disrespecting the flag through his actions. Nike’s partnership with him therefore stands out from other campaigns with purported “social purpose” in that it involved the genuine risk of alienating customers – and the calculation that it would eventually be worth it.

Following the campaign launch, Nike’s stock fell 3% whilst Trump predicted Nike would be “killed” by boycotts, causing #BoycottNike to trend on Twitter. The hashtag generated over 1.4 billion impressions and people started to burn their Nike products en masse. At first, it looked as though Nike had made a catastrophic mistake in its potentially multi-million pound Kaepernick endorsement – alienating people is normally an indication of disastrous brand damage.

But the costs of alienating some of the audience can be outweighed by the benefits of inspiring others to rally around a brand even more enthusiastically having taken a side on a divisive issue. In fact, after the initial share price drop, Nike’s company value reportedly went up by $6 billion, and has sold 61% more of its products since the ad aired.

In launching a purposefully provocative campaign – described variously as “powerful”, a “stroke of genius”, “anti-American” and “sending a terrible message” – Nike has not only shown genuine understanding of its customers (or at least the vast majority of them) but has demonstrated firm confidence in its brand messaging and resolute support for its endorsed athletes.

Nike fans will be grateful to the brand for taking a stand when it can be difficult to do so. Arguably, with global revenue amounting to $36 billion in 2018; they can afford to lose the trainer-burners. Nike has steadfastly stood behind Kaepernick with the brand’s North American vice president openly stating that they believe him to be “one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help the world move forward”.

In this sense, investing in a controversial campaign has been hugely successful. The discussion (and controversy) around the campaign generated $43million worth of media exposure within just 24 hours – likely offsetting the largest part of any lost revenue straight off the bat.

Unlike Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner fiasco, this is an example of how a brand can engage in a social issue without entirely missing the mark.

Contrary to some opinions that Nike has commercialised social activism, the campaign’s messaging remains true to the brand’s long-term values. Kaepernick as a spokesperson feels not only powerful but authentic too.

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