Nike’s Kaepernick ad shows us that it’s okay to make bold statements through what you do and what you say. But it’s not a strategy move that’s about ignoring the opinions of others. It’s really about whose opinion you prioritize and whether you’re committed enough to weather the storm.
This is hard for me. Personally, I don’t want to give Nike credit for this. I have my own thoughts about kneeling for our national anthem, and they don’t align with Colin Kaepernick.
But Nike’s smart.
If we want to be sophisticated lesson-learners, we need to absorb the lessons learned from their strategy with objectivity. No matter what you think, pay attention to how Nike handles the criticism. Listen closely, and you’ll find out how the biggest brands turn controversy–and possibly a mistake–into glory.
They Bet On the Narrative
In fact, Nike already did. They knew there’d be backlash, and they counted on polarization to make them an even stronger brand.
Put simply, your brand doesn’t have to please everyone. It only has to please the audience in your target market. You can even actively offend or “alienate” people. You just have to make sure your core audience…the audience you serve best…is in your corner.
From Nike’s perspective, the narrative is this: things aren’t fair. Colin Kaepernick stood up to that oppression and suffered for it.
True or not, that’s the narrative. Nike supports their tribe’s belief in this narrative. If you’re on the side of the narrative, you now feel like Nike stands with you.
If you feel that the narrative is false or misconstrued, Nike doesn’t care enough to lose much sleep over it.
The lesson? Let every move you make polarize your ideal audience even more in your favor.
They Listen, but Don’t React
If this controversy was about sweatshops, like it was in the ‘90’s, Nike would apologize. In that case, protesters at university campuses heavily influenced their target audience and put pressure on athletic programs. That was bad for Nike’s target audience, so it brought about apologies and damage control measures from the brand.
This time, however, it’s not about Nike using sweatshops. Instead, Nike sees itself on the other side of the issue: standing up for the little guy who’s being oppressed. Knowing their stance is inflammatory, they simply watch and learn from the public reaction. They don’t react quickly and they won’t apologize.
As a brand, Nike has grown enough to know that this is a fight worth fighting (and a storm they can weather). The narrative is firmly in place and is not likely to change soon for their target audience.
The takeaway? Your brand should watch and listen. You must resist the temptation to react. When you do, make your position sound reasonable. It’s best if your position doesn’t offend your core audience.
They Won’t Apologize
Nike thought through the campaign before they launched it. They knew there was no way things were going to turn out badly for them. They didn’t need the popular vote. They just needed their fans. That’s why you won’t hear them apologize.
Making an apology for something that fits your brand actually hurts your credibility and fails to quell the PR problem your created. It calls into question your entire brand. If you do something that’s on-brand, and then you apologize for it, you’re saying your brand is built on a false foundation.
It can be an expensive mistake, and it steals your focus until you put out the fire. Unless your brand is based on something that’s morally wrong, don’t apologize.
Brands Don’t Turn on a Dime
A brand is like a ship. And Nike is a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Basically, it’s not going to change positions or stop its momentum on a dime.
Nike didn’t decide on this Kaepernick campaign yesterday. As a brand, they have a history of supporting or taking principle-based positions for a long time. Maybe they waited and watched to see which narrative would help them make their next move. The foundation of their strategy was in place for years. They just needed the right socially-relevant moment to launch it.
What’s the lesson here? Use the momentum of a solid strategy and authentic identity (brand) to navigate the deep waters of marketing. Be a big, heavy ship that won’t get buffeted by constantly changing winds. Even though you won’t be able to turn as fast, you probably won’t want to when your audience starts to identify with your brand’s consistent direction.
That’s what Nike did. Maybe it’s a good time to be like
If you’re interested in building your “heavy ship,” consider reaching out to us. We’ve done things like this before.