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“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

On September 3, just three days before the 2018 NFL season officially kicked off, Nike announced the spokesperson for Just Do It’s 30th anniversary campaign, called “Dream Crazy” — an unemployed quarterback by the name of Colin Kaepernick.

Nike’s announcement, perfectly timed, spawned a virtual wildfire of political controversy, with many long-time customers claiming they would burn their Nike apparel. An entire city in Louisiana even banned Nike products in its Parks and Recreation Department following the announcement. The city rescinded a few days later.

Kaepernick virtually turned the NFL upside down beginning in 2016, when he consistently took a knee rather than standing for the national anthem. His actions were a statement against racial inequality, and players throughout the league followed suit.

Nike has never shied away from controversy, but was choosing Kaepernick as the face of Dream Crazy a smart move for the industry giant?  The answer is a resounding yes, if financial data is any indication.

While some marketing insiders called the campaign “edgy and risky,” it has already paid off. After seeing an initial slump, Nike online sales grew by 31 percent between the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and the following Tuesday. That number is a 15 percent increase over the sales numbers from the same timeframe in 2017.

Nothing but Net (Worth): Nike’s Brand Value

As far as sales go, Nike seems untouchable. Valued at $32 billion, Nike ranks No. 18 on Forbes’ list of The World’s Most Valuable Brands, one of only two sports apparel brands to make the cut. The other is Adidas, coming in at No. 68.

And marketing has always been one of the company’s strong points. Nike’s modern digital marketing strategy is all-encompassing — featuring memes, videos, and world-class athletes, including Kaepernick and tennis superstar Serena Williams, who also seems to invite controversy. Nike seems to understand the needs of its consumers in a way that few apparel companies can match.

One could argue that criticism almost fuels Nike’s branding tactics. Nike’s business plan emphasises both brand consistency and the opinions of its target customers. The company has always been exceptional at understanding what’s important to its core audience, and isn’t afraid to take risks.

In fact, overcoming challenges is one of the core messages of Just Do It, so the campaign helps back up Nike’s marketing message, in a profound way. Thus, Nike’s brand value is stronger than just comfortable and attractive apparel — it also represents the world’s disenfranchised populations, and fights to combat social justice. At the very least, its marketing tactics are so on point that their target audience believes it.

But Nike’s targeted lifestyle branding isn’t just smoke and mirrors  — it’s a calculated move that has yielded impressive dividends across the decades.

lifestyle branding

Brazen Marketing Tactics and Long-Term Success

Nike is no stranger to controversy where marketing is concerned. The “Just Do It” campaign rolled out in 1988, and it has received a fair amount of criticism in the last 30 years. In 1995, for instance, Nike released an ad featuring runner Ric Munoz, an HIV-positive gay man.

At the time, HIV awareness was just entering the national spotlight, and the subject was relatively taboo, especially from a PR perspective. But, as the underlying goal of a PR professional is to craft a favorable image of a company or brand using available tools, is potential debate one of Nike’s marketing tools?

Nike must have understood that the choice of Kaepernick would be a controversial one, yet its marketing department clearly chose to move forward with Kaepernick as the face of Dream Crazy, even giving him a multiyear deal. Market research must have indicated that Nike’s target customers are those who are likely to support Kaepernick and his fight for equality.

According to W Magazine, Nike’s name was dropped on social media 1,000 percent more following the launch of the campaign than it was prior to Dream Crazy. Further, the magazine quotes analyst Aaron Goldman: “You can be darn sure that Nike has done its research and knows what will move its product and who this campaign will resonate with.”

Sacrifice: The Price of Belief?

As Nike has a reputation for including messages of social justice within their marketing campaigns, Kaepernick seems an apt choice for spokesman in late 2018. Although he’s still in his athletic prime at the age of 30, the quarterback (who led the San Francisco 49ers to the Superbowl in 2013, his first year as a starter) is without a team for the second consecutive year.

A free agent since March 2017, Kaepernick believes that he has been systematically pushed out of the NFL, following his well-publicized campaign. His belief is so strong that he filed a collusion-based civil suit against the league in October of that year.

The NFL disputes Kaepernick’s claims and requested a summary judgement in July in an effort to close the case before it really began, but the organization wasn’t successful.

Just days before his Dream Crazy campaign launched, Kaepernick’s legal team announced that the NFL’s request had been denied, so the case will proceed to trial. Kaepernick is requesting a monetary award equal to what he would have earned had he been signed by an NFL team.

While some people fighting injustice will choose a relevant career path, such as within the corrections system, others must integrate their profession with social justice. As a prominent public figure, Kaepernick used his visibility to protest against racial injustice and police brutality. And it ultimately cost him his job, at least until Nike came to the rescue.

Final Thoughts

In the last 30 years, the “Just Do It” campaign hasn’t shied away from the hard questions and issues facing society. Yet Nike sales remain steady, and have even grown, in the face of criticism and controversy.

Nike’s story is a prime example of how PR and marketing can successfully merge. By doing diligent market research and taking advantage of the potential leads offered by Kaepernick supporters, Nike turned what could have been a marketing nightmare into a lucrative partnership.