Kaepernick and Nike: dollars or beliefs?

Nike caused a stir this week by announcing that they had signed Colin Kaepernick to be the face of their “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign.

Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback most recently with the San Francisco 49ers, whom he lead to the 2013 Superbowl where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens, caused controversy in 2016 when he refused to stand for the national anthem played before games during the NFL season. This led (unofficially) to his ouster from the 49ers and the refusal of NFL teams to sign him to a new contract due to their desire to avoid the anthem controversy. Kaepernick has remained a source of inspiration for many, and a source of ire for many others, who accuse him of disrespecting the flag. Kaepernick has repeatedly stated that his initial desire was to highlight police brutality and had nothing to do with disrespect to the American flag. This has not stopped his opponents from turning his kneeling into an egregious display of disrespect for America and its values.

This is the backdrop which helped ignite the controversy surrounding Nike’s decision and led some Nike customers to boycott and protest. Accusations of Nike supporting someone who disrespects the flag has some people enraged and responses range from encouraging others to dump their Nike stock while others are burning their shoes.  Others, naturally, are applauding Nike for their decision and hailing the progressive message it sends.

This is a fascinating example of a large company essentially wading in a social justice war: something corporations are generally loath to do. So why would Nike do it? Michael Jordan, perhaps Nike’s most famous spokesperson, famously avoided politics and is alleged to have said it was because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” This seems to be the logic many corporations take on controversial, cutting edge social issues. “Why risk it,” seems to be the prevailing logic, which is what makes Nike’s decision interesting.

I believe Nike’s primary motive remains money. Nike has clearly done their homework and believe they will profit from the decision. Already they have gained $43 million in exposure , most of it positive. It also seems to fit with the fact that their core customers are 14-22 year-olds and that they view 80% of their growth to 2020 coming in 12 key urban centres, as CNN reported. These urban centres, as well as the aforementioned demographics, are more likely to support Kaepernick’s message and stance on these issues and Nike no doubt knows this.

But I also can’t help but feel this fits with what Nike is and what they believe. I grant they have their issues in other areas, but culture in any organization is essential to success and for me, this fits with Nike’s values and mission. Nike also talks about these values and their importance looking ahead in their letter to shareholders. I think this is a double hit and win for Nike. It makes them money and so it should, but I also think it signals to the world and the USA where Nike stands in the growing cultural rift today and into the future.


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