Should Nike Have Done It?

Taking a corporate position on a controversial subject is a tricky affair. On the one hand, recent studies indicate that most consumers want brands they like to take a stand on an issue they care about. On the other, taking a position can have unforeseen consequences.

Case in point: Pepsi’s 2017 ad featuring Kendall Jenner, who appears to join a Black Lives Matter protest before winning over a grim police officer with a can of pop. That calculated risk blew up on social media amid accusations that Pepsi had co-opted the Black Lives movement and used a serious issue to sell a soft drink.

Now comes Nike with a no-less controversial ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, who is admired by those who endorse his willingness to protest injustice against African-Americans by taking a knee during the national anthem and reviled by those who see the act as deeply unpatriotic.

The result of Nike’s move has been fascinating. Outraged consumers posted pictures on social media showing themselves burning shoes and other Nike apparel. Nike’s stock plunged soon after the ad first aired.

But within a significant segment of the population, the accolades began to mount. Nike’s stock fully recovered. And it didn’t take long for someone to try to put a dollar value on the ad. Apex Marketing says the exposure gained from the ad was worth $163.5 million in earned (as opposed to purchased) exposure. Apex found $49.1 million of that exposure was negative, $48.8 million was neutral, and $65.6 million was positive.

What to make of this?

First of all, we are in the habit of encouraging strategies designed to produce only positive attention. But Nike’s decision also reinforces something else we advise our clients to do: Know your audience.

Nike didn’t “Just Do It.” According to a poll conducted for CNN, 44 percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 said they supported Nike’s decision to use Kaepernick, while 32 percent opposed it. Others had no opinion. Among consumers 35 to 44, 52 percent approved of it.

Who tended to oppose it? Those over 65. And who is Nike’s core audience? Well, not those over 65.

Taking a stand on a controversial issue or celebrating a hot-button public figure is a tremendous risk. Tread carefully. And yet, the tools we advocate – extensive message testing and understanding of your core audiences – can lead to success. While nobody knows what the long-term effects will be, Nike seems to be winning … for now.