Is Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ‘Just Do It’ deal really stupid — or incredibly shrewd?

Many marketing pundits and talking heads are now asking whether Nike’s “Just Do It” anniversary deal with NFL quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick is one of the stupidest marketing decisions ever. Is Nike crazy — or crazy like a fox?

Given the protests and counter-protests that have surrounded other brands taking political or value-based stands since the 2016 election, Nike had to have known that it would bring controversy if not outright boycotts from some quarters. But that may have been part of the calculation for the sports-apparel giant.

Indeed, thousands of those opposed to Kaepernick’s activism tweeted or retweeted images of burned or destroyed Nike shoes and other Nike apparel.

Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt

— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 3, 2018

In this case I believe that Nike is “leaning in” to the controversy. I suspect the company has done a cost-benefit analysis of the Kaepernick deal and concluded that on balance it’s a positive. The message is one of integrity — “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” — and even heroism.

Kaepernick’s “kneeling” national anthem protests revolve around racial injustice and police brutality. However, opponents (including the president) accuse him of being unpatriotic and disrespecting the flag.

In the face of all the protests on social media today, Nike’s stock lost value. But in the relatively near term the stock will almost certainly rebound. There is a storm to weather, but once on the other side Nike is likely to reap benefits from target audiences: younger buyers and people of color.

In the space of 24 hours, Nike has suddenly become more “socially relevant,” visible and edgy than its top athletic shoe rivals. According to a quick analysis provided to Bloomberg by Apex Marketing Group, the exposure generated by the controversy was the equivalent of roughly $43 million in media. The majority of that exposure was “neutral to positive” according to the firm’s analysis.

Other third parties provide support for this perspective. Twitter data from Sprinklr found that as of mid-day Tuesday there had been:

  • 3.4 million mentions of Nike

  • #JustDoit and #Nike combined for 576,000 mentions

  • #BoycottNike and #Nikeboycott had roughly 123,000 mentions

While social conservatives and others on social media called for boycotts, it’s not clear how much this sentiment will extend into real-world buying behavior and offline conversations. An Engagement Labs analysis of audience reactions to various brand controversies concluded that social media conversations are not necessarily a good predictor of “real life” activity and attitudes.

Several studies have also shown that a majority of consumers, especially younger people, want brands to take values-based positions on issues. A recent survey from Sprout Social found that 66 percent of consumers “want brands to take public stands on social and political issues.” These are some of the people Nike is trying to attract.

One could argue, as many have, that as a brand you have to “just stay out” of politics. But in this polarized climate playing it safe is almost impossible. Nike went the other way, flying directly in the face of the conventional wisdom.

And while it’s too early to tell for sure, the company’s decision appears to be a shrewd one. It just looks stupid on first glance.

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