Nearly a month after Nike announced that Colin Kaepernick would be the face of its “Just Do It” 30th Anniversary ad campaign, the decision appears to be paying off.
Nike’s stock price hit an all-time high at $83.47 less than two weeks after the announcement and has since continued to rise, peaking at $85.55 last Friday and closing at $83.70 on Wednesday. The company has enjoyed positive press and encouraging consumer data in its target markets, seemingly vindicating the risk it took in embracing quite possibly the most politically divisive person in sports.
And yet, all that might not have happened had it not been for one executive afraid of some bad press.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that Nike was very close to cutting ties with Kaepernick last year, when the quarterback remained unemployed and a political lightning rod. While the relationship has obviously since blossomed, tensions behind the scenes reportedly raged.
Nike’s relationship with Kaerpernick had been strained
Back in 2017, when Kaepernick was in his first season of free agency and mired in a collusion lawsuit against the NFL, Nike executives reportedly didn’t know what to do with an athlete that had nearly no chance to see an NFL field again and faced a sea of public negativity.
Per the Times, Nike’s top decision-makers had actually decided to end the company’s contract with Kaepernick, which would have dealt a significant public blow to Kaepernick. That move was stopped by the efforts of one executive: head of communications Nigel Powell, who reportedly “went ballistic” when he head of the decision.
The simple reason for wanting to keep Kaepernick was that Nike was more interested in the demographics they’d anger by cutting Kaepernick than the demographics they’d anger by embracing him.
Powell argued that Nike would face backlash from the media and consumers if it was seen as siding with the N.F.L. rather than Kaepernick. And Nike, along with most apparel companies, is desperate to attract urban youth who increasingly look up to Kaepernick; the largely white, older N.F.L. fans angry at the league over the protests are not a priority for those companies, analysts say.
Per the report, Nike eventually decided to hold onto the athlete, then allow his contract to quietly expire in 2019. That plan still drew anger from Kaepernick’s representative, who argued the contract required Nike to still use the quarterback in ad campaigns or products. Ultimately, Nike realized there was profit to be had from Kaepernick’s status as a civil rights figurehead.
How Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign came about
The Times reports that Nike’s ad agency Wieden & Kennedy “urged” the company to use Kaepernick in its upcoming “Just Do It” campaign, despite the potential for massive blowback from the NFL, a business with which Nike has a relationship in the hundreds of millions of dollars. However, with Nike’s financial ties reportedly set to shrink in 2020 due to a prior licensing agreement, the company decided to take the risk.
Wieden & Kennedy “pushed to use Colin Kaepernick as the face of the 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign,” a designer at the firm wrote in September on a website showcasing his work. He added: “Nike agreed to it. We made it. Colin posted it. People lost it.”
According to people who worked on the campaign, Kaepernick’s role came together rather quickly, with significant elements completed just weeks before the release. Wieden & Kennedy didn’t finalize the agreement for the edited image of Kaepernick with text until Aug. 27, and Lacey Baker, a skateboarder featured in the ad, said Nike did not reach out to her until mid-August.
Kaepernick campaign has since flourished
The short-term blowback that Nike received for its big move with Kaepernick was both very loud and very predictable.
Boycotts were planned, people burned their already purchased Nike gear and several conservative figureheads blasted the move, most visibly of all the President of the United States. Donald Trump tweeted twice about a topic he has been obsessed with, claiming that Nike was getting “absolutely killed with anger and boycotts” and asking what the company was thinking with their divisive decision.
That’s the negative for Nike. The positive is that the company has been seeing record engagement, increased sales and strong consumer data in the younger markets it covets.
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