Nike doesn't care if you hate Kaepernick — you're not its target

Nike doesn't care if you hate Kaepernick — you're not its target
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Nike has never been a brand to conform to mainstream strategies or predictable creative, in their shoe design or in their advertising messaging. Much like the endorsers they select, who are typically at the top of their sport, Nike tends to lead rather than follow.

They’re bold, in your face and without apology. They are true to their core customer and speak loudly and clearly to their target audience. In some cases, if others just don’t “get” their message, it’s just as well; they weren’t talking to you anyway.

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The current iteration of their long-standing and highly praised “Just Do It” campaign is no exception. For the last two days, Mueller’s Russia investigation and Supreme Court nominee hearings have taken a back seat on most people’s social media feeds as everyone has felt the need to weigh in on Nike’s latest “Just Do It” campaign, which features polarizing ex-NFL player Colin Kaepernick.

The ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback-turned-social-justice-warrior Kaepernick has become a lightning rod for controversy after his quiet protest in which he took a knee during each pregame national anthem to bring attention to the issue of police brutality and the disproportionate and seemingly unchecked victimization of African-Americans at the hands of police.

Given how incredibly passionate Americans are in their support or outrage regarding the players’ protest (there doesn’t seem to be much reaction in between), particularly toward Kaepernick for starting it, many have wondered why Nike would risk teaming up with such a social gadfly and whether it was a good move.

The decision was questioned further given the president's furious response to Nike’s newest advertising partnership, proclaiming the brand’s imminent demise and predictably tweeting that the brand is getting “absolutely killed.”

Whether the majority of Americans agree or not with the players’ right to protest by taking a knee depends on who you ask, as polls vary quite widely across segments of the population. But what Nike is concerned about and, no doubt, can accurately predict, is how its core consumers will respond.

Psychologists care about human behavior; marketers care about consumer behavior; Nike marketers care about their consumers' behavior.

If you’re not the core customer for their product or the target audience for their messaging then your outrage not only doesn’t much matter but, as in the case of the president, it earns them far more attention, more press, free promotion and most importantly, sales.

Even folks posting photos and videos of them burning their already paid-for Nikes is great free public relations. Some estimates report that Nike has already earned over $43 million in buzz in the first 24 hours following the announcement of the new creative, and the campaign has yet to officially launch.

This is not Nike’s first time embracing a controversial figure, so they do have history from which to operate. After Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods both faced public scorn for highly publicized scandals, Nike was one of the few sponsors that did not cut ties with either athlete.

Eventually, Nike released moving, thought-provoking ads providing reflective, inspirational and relatable messaging (along with mesmerizing, tight-framed, black-and-white images in each campaign) to reintroduce each athlete and align their journey with Nike’s mantra.

While there were those who wondered aloud why Nike would align themselves with an accused rapist or a disgraced philanderer, their target audience valued both the messaging and the individuals’ athleticism and embraced the brand’s values.

While the market may have flinched on the first day following news of Nike’s latest campaign featuring Kaepernick, it has already begun rebounding, increasing while the rest of the market decreased.

While some individuals and even some institutions may boycott the brand over its current move, the core Nike consumer — individuals who make up many of these institutions and those who are what many marketers call “heavy users” — will likely not go anywhere.

Those outside the target audience might buy a new pair of sneakers each year; maybe a couple if they are avid runners or live an active lifestyle. Nike’s core customers and heavy users likely own and regularly purchase dozens of sneakers and a good deal of sportswear and equipment each year.

The brand also has an avid following around the world, with international sales fueling the majority of their recent growth and offsetting sluggish U.S. sales. International markets are not likely to be affected negatively by Nike’s new campaign; in fact, the reaction will likely be overwhelmingly supportive.

Nike has never been afraid to take a stand and always does so with its core customer in mind. Other brands like Ford and Levi’s have already followed suit, with messaging and campaigns in support of the NFL protest and gun control, respectively.

In today’s marketplace, taking a stand on social issues is no longer a choice; it has become inevitable. Consumers want to do business with brands that are aligned with their values. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle makes it easy and necessary to communicate them.

Levi’s President and CEO Chip Bergh said it well: “While taking a stand can be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option.”

Business has never been for the faint of heart, but it seems that today more than ever, businesses and brands must embrace Nike’s mantra and “Just Do It.”

Marlene Morris Towns is an adjunct professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.