Nike notched a marketing checkmate with Kaepernick choice

Nike notched a marketing checkmate with Kaepernick choice
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Identity and emotions: These are the cornerstones of Nike’s marketing strategy.

In the class that I teach at the Wharton School on customer behavior, I often challenge the students to name for me any Nike communication with the following voiceover:

"The shoes are made out of this type of leather, the stitching is made using this type of innovative technology, the sole is made using this manufacturing process that maximizes the life of the shoe, etc.…”

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That’s a message about features; a message about utilitarian benefits. Nike never talks about what it does in this way. That is a story about what; not a story about why.

At the end of the day, there are probably many companies that can produce a product that has the equivalent features of a Nike product.

What they cannot easily reproduce though is that feeling that you get, those goosebumps when you achieve a goal (in sport and in life) that you did not believe was possible. Those ideals and those values have been baked into the very DNA of the Nike swoosh.

This was not by accident.

When Phil Knight paid Carolyn Davidson $35 to design the swoosh, he had a vision of where he wanted that image to live in the psychological space of consumer’s mind.

This was a planned strategy over many years in which instead of talking about features, Nike screamed from the mountaintop about empowerment through sport, celebrating life and learning life’s lessons through sport (comradery, team, leadership, anything is possible, overcoming obstacles, creating a better you).

Put another way, the desire to “Just Do It.”

Nike just did something that shocked many. Nike decided to make Colin Kaepernick as the “face” of its Just Do it campaign’s 30-year anniversary. Apparently, this has been part of a long-term plan; a risky chess game of sorts.

The onslaught of social media backlash was swift. A litany of consumers who view silent protesting at football games as disrespectful to American Identity and to the sacrifices made by military women and men were quick to express their viral outrage by ripping up or burning their Nike gear.

The stock price dropped 3 percent. Folks were up in arms, and consumer vigilantes took to the Twittersphere. This raises key questions: Did Nike think this through? Is this going to work? Was this a wise move?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Here’s why it was a smart move and may end up being a total marketing checkmate for Nike.

I research the concept of “identity loyalty.” Identity loyalty is when buying is being. Some brands, products, services and even organizations can transcend what they do to become a part of who you are. I call this phenomena identity loyalty.

When a consumer internalizes a brand as part of who they are, the consumer becomes a one-man, one-woman marketing department for free, willing to proactively advocate on behalf of the brand and defend it when the brand comes under attack.

Why? Because the brand is part of their identity and an attack on the brand is an attack on the self. Nike understands this.

Identity loyalty will create a buffer, a defense mechanism that protects the brand. The hardcore identity loyal Nike consumers will rally around each other and fiercely defend their community.

Creating an identity loyal marketing strategy is like making deposits of goodwill into the bank. That way, if there is a misstep, those who have their identities connected to the product will still stand by the brand.

This is a powerful idea that was perhaps first articulated in Simon Sinek’s third-most-watched Ted Talk of all time where he famously said: “People do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Nike also knows that one of the greatest things a brand can do is tie its own identity to the identity of iconic athletes as a way of creating that “aspirational self” — that image and thought that, "If I have this product, I can reinforce an important part of who I am."

There is a sense of vicariously connecting one's own identity to that of the brand and the iconic athlete that is a part of that brand. Again, it is all about identity and creating emotions through identity, whereby the product is the self-expressive conduit that symbolizes those values to yourself and others around you.

Sometimes it works (think Michael Jordan and Serena Williams), and sometimes there are missteps (think Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong).

What we are seeing now is a convergence around the theme of identity loyalty as a strong lynch pin for Nike’s marketing strategy. We are also seeing the operationalization of identity loyalty from Nike in terms of clearly articulating exactly what “values” underlie the brand.

Consider Nike's Kaepernick tagline: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The Nike brand is known for being bold. Nike is now unequivocally getting off the sidelines and making a definitive statement on a highly politicized issue. But this was actually very smart for four reasons.

First, it forges a relationship between Nike and an athlete who may go down in history as this generation’s Muhammad Ali. Second, Nike knows it has a strong identity loyal base of core users who will rise up and defend these values.

Third, in an almost paradoxical sense, this message is actually embracing those who would now burn the swoosh in response to what they believe is disrespect to the American flag and its compatriots who make the ultimate sacrifice: Believe in something.

Fourth, Nike knows the direction of the demography of this country and understands that when you target a specific market with your message — be it identity based or otherwise — you are not trying to necessarily connect with everyone and you are ok if some choose to not align themselves with your brand.

That’s what marketing is.

Therefore, when I wistfully muse about the decision Nike made recently to reactivate the 30-year anniversary of its iconic Just Do It campaign, I salute Nike for being a values-based company, to transparently come out and say, "This is what we stand for. This is our why, for better or for worse.”

My guess is that when the dust settles, it will be for better.

Americus Reed is professor of Marketing at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.