In the 2009 documentary Art & Copy, inimitable designer and art director George Lois reiterates his long-held view on advertising: it’s poison gas. “Advertising should tear you up, it should choke you, you get the chills, and maybe you pass out when you watch it,” he says in the film.
30 years ago, during a meeting at Nike’s longtime ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, they developed one of the most effective poison gas grenades of the modern era—three simple words—“JUST DO IT.” The slogan’s macabre origins trace back to the last words of murderer Gary Gilmore, whose death sentence was carried out by a Utah firing squad in 1977. When the time came to carry out the sentence, he told his executioners “Let’s do it.”
It’s a simple premise that puts star athletes and average joes on the same playing field, a Yoda-esque dichotomy that puts people into two categories: those who do, and those who do not. It was also a mantra that Nike rode to a significant business increase–from 1988 to 1998, Nike’s share in the American sneaker market went from 18% to 43%, and its revenues ballooned from $877 million to $9.2 billion.
Even today, with reported global footwear sales of $21.1 billion in 2017, Nike remains the dominant leader in the market, which is why it’s in a position to have a “Just Do It” approach to taking risks. That’s exactly what the sportswear giant did yesterday by announcing Colin Kaepernick as one of the main faces of its 30th anniversary “JUST DO IT” campaign, alongside the likes of Serena Williams, LeBron James, Odell Beckham Jr., Lacy Baker, and Shaquem Griffin.
Kaepernick of course, is the former NFL quarterback (and current free agent) whose peaceful, bent-knee protests during the national anthem were meant to bring awareness about continued racial injustice in America. He has been signed to Nike since 2011, but hasn’t played on a team since 2016—he’s even filed a grievance with the NFL for allegedly colluding to keep him off the field in retaliation for his protests.
That certainly hasn’t stopped him from being a legitimately bankable figure—his jersey remains one of the best-selling ones in 2017 despite the fact that he hasn’t been in a game for almost two years now. That hasn’t stopped him from beating his pledge of donating $1 million to charity, a goal he’s since surpassed (with the help of friends like DJ Khaled). To date, he’s given more than $1 million to 41 different charities. Kaepernick is more than willing to put his money where his mouth is, and Nike’s recent campaign puts the company’s standing in solidarity with him—as well as the legions of people who agree with his cause. What’s more, Nike recently extended a deal with the NFL that will keep the Swoosh on players’ backs through 2028.
“The company is taking the strategic position that a large segment of its fan base will not only maintain their support, but will actually strengthen their reverence,” says Jeremy Robinson-Leon, President at strategic PR firm Group Gordon, which specializes in crisis control. “For Nike, that result outweighs the potential for a smaller slice of customers to jump ship in protest. And for those customers in the middle who aren’t engaged or don’t have much of an opinion, well, business continues as usual.”
Of course, what Nike is experiencing is far from a crisis. It’s a brilliantly engineered marketing strategy. Brand strategist Phil Chang posted his perspective on how aligning with polarizing athletes like Kaepernick and Serena Williams (whose superhero-like catsuit has been banned by the French Open, and has recently taken to winning her current U.S. Open run in several Virgil Abloh-designed tulle-skirted dresses) reinforces the same brand values Nike has had since day one. That is to say: It’s still very much a company for those who “Just Do It.”
“Nike’s not a charity organization. It’s not like they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts,” clarifies Chang. “This is market analysis. Nike has made the calculation that they can bear the load of irresponsible journalism that’ll come out about their stock prices tanking in the immediate aftermath of the campaign announcement. They can bear conservatives, MAGA people, and alt-right extremists burning Nike products that they bought and own and causing a stir on social media.”
Indeed, in the days after announcing the Kaepernick campaign, numerous people have come out to decry the brand, even taking to burning their Nike products on social media and announcing a boycott of the label, just like Chang predicted. Nike’s stock price decreased by 3% on Tuesday, but according to Forbes, that may be more due to the natural ebb and flow of the market, ongoing trade disputes between America and countries like China, and a re-negotiation of NAFTA. To put things in context, adidas experienced a similar drop of around 2.4%, and Under Armour came out with a slight rise of 1.47% when markets closed yesterday.
“They’re not making a wild gamble here,” says Chang. “This is looking at what their brand and what their business can bear, as far as backlash is concerned.”
So what does Nike stand to gain from such a risky marketing maneuver? Plain and simple—it’s money. It’s a long-term play to court Nike’s largest consumer base: two-thirds of its customers are younger than 35 and they comprise a diverse set of ethnic backgrounds, according to Bloomberg. Nike’s hedging its bets on younger progressives who are more likely to buy its products on a consistent basis, versus let’s say, older consumers who might cop a pair of Monarchs once every few months.
Of course, Chang has a more succinct point-of-view on the Swoosh’s short-term game plan: “What they’ve decided—from again a market analysis standpoint—is that they will make a metric shit ton of money off of the Kaepernick brand,” he says. And Kaepernick benefits from having an even larger platform for his message.
In wearing its values on its sleeve, Nike is getting ahead of the conversation. Its using idealistic politics to its advantage, in contrast to companies like In-N-Out and Coachella, whose conservative leanings have been recently revealed through uncovering donations to Republican causes. The latter are successful despite where they stand on the political spectrum—Nike is positioning itself to be successful because of it.
“That’s the thing about business and politics in 2018: Many companies have a unique opportunity to both do the right thing in the eyes of their customers and also fulfill their commercial purpose,” says Robison-Leon. “This is one of the boldest examples in the recent past.”
Either way, social media-led boycotts are not likely to hurt their bottom line, and Nike’s gamble has already paid off in the form of $43 million of earned media. But beyond the number-crunching and strategic thinking that goes into a risky initiative like this, the most important factor is how endorsing someone like Colin Kaepernick really isn’t such a left-of-center move for the company. After all, Nike believed in Michael Jordan’s on-court ability and off-court bankability long before anyone else did.
“Nike has always invoked the strength of human character and power of determination in its identity,” adds Robinson-Leon. “At its core, the Kaepernick campaign is no different—it’s part of a consistent Nike evolution that happens to be an acute reflection of the world we live in at the moment.”