What the Nike campaign tells us about the risks & rewards of taking a stand

Nike's advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick – a man described by the New York Times as “perhaps the most divisive American athlete of his generation” – is one of the most contentious examples of corporate activism in recent memory. What lessons can corporate communicators draw from the company speaking out on a ‘hot button’ issue, and how does this affect corporate reputation?

The author(s)

  • Matthew Painter UK Managing Director – Corporate Reputation
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Earlier this year, I wrote an article titled “Taking a stand – do the rewards of corporate activism outweigh the risks?”. In it, I shared some data from the Ipsos Reputation Council (125 CCOs from corporations around the world), in which 56% of Members said their consumers now expect them to take a stand on socio-political issues, against just 23% who disagreed. As one Member put it: 

It is a fine line, but I don't think companies should hold back and say ‘for us it is just about making money; we don't care about all the other stuff’. For me that would be a non-sustainable way of doing business.

Since then, we’ve seen one of the most contentious examples of corporate activism in recent memory. Nike has chosen Colin Kaepernick, a man described by the New York Times as “perhaps the most divisive American athlete of his generation”, as the face of its new ad campaign, under the tagline ‘Believe in Something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’

What lessons can corporate communicators learn from this? In particular, what does the Nike example tell us about how speaking out on a ‘hot button’ issue affects corporate reputation? 

To help us answer that, we waited for the dust to settle, then we ran research among more than 1,000 people in the US and a similar number in the UK.

New research shows the impact of Nike’s stand

Looking at our data from the US, what jumps out straight away is that the campaign really cut through. Even a couple of months after it hit the headlines, nearly three quarters (72%) of people correctly associated it with Nike. And very few misattributed it to another sportswear brand. So the US public is hearing Nike’s voice on this issue, loud and clear.

But is this a good thing for Nike’s reputation? We asked people “how, if at all, has your overall opinion of Nike changed, as a result of the company using Colin Kaepernick as a spokesperson?” 

Here, we see a three-way split: one in three (31%) feel more positive towards Nike, and a slightly greater proportion more negative (33%) with the remaining third feeling no different. 


This clearly shows how divisive – in fact, how polarizing – the campaign has been. What’s more, it has often provoked strong feelings; 1 in 5 (20%) say they feel much more positive towards Nike, and 1 in 4 (25%) a lot more negative.

Reputation Council Members are very clear about the risk of taking this kind of stance. Last year, 59% said the benefits of taking a stand were bigger than ever. But 77% said the risks were greater, too.

It's very high risk to take positions on [socio-political] things. There is clearly no consensus in the world and the conventional wisdom has been proved wrong time and time again in the last two years, so it is high risk.

But even if the campaign has had a powerful influence on people’s perceptions of Nike, what does that mean for their behaviour towards the brand? 

After all, the acid test for any campaign, be it corp comms or straight marketing (and we can debate which of these the Nike campaign is), will ultimately be whether its target audience acts differently, as a result. In this case, will consumers be more or less motivated to choose Nike, rather than adidas or Reebok or Under Armour, when they’re shopping for sports kit? 

What’s interesting is that the campaign’s impact on purchase intention is equally polarized. A quarter (26%) of the US public we surveyed said they’re more likely to consider buying Nike products; three in ten (30%) would be less likely. And again, these views are pretty strong – 16% would be much more likely to choose Nike, and fully 22% a lot less likely. 



Will consumers follow through on these intentions? That largely depends on the fundamentals of product choice – range, price, availability, etc.  

Either way, it’s clear that the campaign has provoked passions strong enough to change behaviour – both pro and anti. In fact, it’s probably truer to say that it has brought to the surface, or mirrored, divisions which already existed in the USA. 

Jelani Cobb, writing in the New Yorker, described the two opposing narratives which the campaign taps into;

While some people rage that yet again in America an ingrate-rebel has been rewarded, there is another narrative that Kaepernick conjures—that of an individual, driven by conscience, fighting a lonely crusade against forces more powerful than he is.

Some commentators, such as Dave Zirin in The Nation, have questioned whether Nike’s role is really that of an activist, or one that conflates political activism with consumerism:

Nike has used the image of rebellion to sell its gear, while stripping that rebellion of all its content.

Hemal Jhaveri argued a similar point in USA Today’s sports blog:

Just as the beauty industry co-opted female empowerment and body positivity to sell soap and eyeliner, Nike’s ad creates a disturbing correlation between Kaepernick’s act of political protest, which required immense personal sacrifice, and the act of buying shoes and workout gear.

However, Nike didn’t have to choose this issue, this time, or this spokesperson. Bear in mind the two, opposing narratives. Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the national anthem in protest against racism, police brutality and social injustice. Opponents decried what they saw as a lack of respect. 

By endorsing Kaepernick’s stance, Nike lined up all the weight of its multi-billion-dollar brand on one side of a powerfully divisive issue. Inevitably, this would provoke or even alienate consumers on the other side of the debate. 

And it’s when we look at the demographic profiles of these opposing camps that it gets really interesting. 

Poles apart: how the campaign divided US opinion 

Strikingly, nearly 3 in 5 (57%) of the African American people we surveyed said they feel more positively toward Nike because of the campaign; well above the total proportion (31%). And of these, fully 48% feel much more positive. African Americans also show a much greater uplift in Nike purchase consideration. ​​​​​​

Our survey also looked at voting intention. It’s maybe no surprise, given the political discourse, to find that Democrats are typically warmer towards the campaign than are Republicans. But the extent of the polarity is surprising. In terms of likelihood to consider buying Nike, those identifying as Democrats split 44% ‘more likely’ (of which 28% said ‘much more’) and just 8% ‘less likely’.

Contrast that with Republicans – 68% of whom said they’d be ‘less likely’ to buy Nike (and 52% ‘a lot less’) and just 7% ‘more likely’. And as basketball great and Nike frontman Michael Jordan is supposed to have said (it may be apocryphal) – “Republicans buy shoes too”.


So what this looks like in the US is corporate activism with the gloves off. In terms of Nike’s reputation, some consumers are downright outraged (#BurnNike), others are mobilized around an issue which matters greatly to them. 

And consumers aside, it’s safe to assume that Nike’s other US stakeholders – from POTUS and Capitol Hill to Nike’s suppliers, potential employees and the media – will also line up along either side of the divide. 

Next generation corporate activism

We also found one more, striking divide – by age.

People who felt warmer towards Nike because of the campaign, and were more likely to pick Nike products as a result, were significantly more likely to be younger (Millennial or, to an even greater degree, Gen Z) than older (Gen X or Boomer). 

Since hardcore sneakerheads are also more likely to be young (nearly two-thirds of people who wear Nike in the United States are under 35 years old, according to Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at the NPD Group) that’s no bad thing for Nike. The reputational boost from the campaign among this key group should translate into brand consideration and loyalty. 

At a time when it’s harder than ever for brands to cut through, it’s particularly striking that half (50%) of Gen Z respondents in our survey – born 1995-2015 – feel more positively about Nike than they did before. 

The view from the UK: how strong are the ripples?

Of course, the US is Nike’s home turf and by far its biggest market. But what resonance does the campaign have beyond the States? Do people know, or care, who Colin Kaepernick – an American footballer, after all – is? 

Looking at the UK, it is indeed a different picture. Just 1 in 3 (35%) correctly associate the campaign with Nike (half the US figure). Two in five (44%) say they’ve never heard of Colin Kaepernick. 

Those who are familiar with the ads are more likely to feel warmer toward Nike as a result (37% more positive, just 9% more negative) and 1 in 4 (24%) would be more likely to consider buying Nike. 
This is still a very decent uplift, but clearly the issue is much less politically charged, and much less motivating, than in the US. 

Conclusions

First, as I wrote in my previous piece, it’s crystal clear that activism might bring rewards, but it will definitely carry risks. Really taking a stand, rather than hitching your wagon to the latest fad, will be inherently provocative.

Having the US President tweet “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts”, would give most companies pause. 

Frankly once you have entered that political environment there is never a simple answer and if you are going to be brave enough to take a stand you are going to have to accept the consequences that may be unintended.

Ipsos Reputation Council Member
 

So why take the risk? To answer that, it’s worth considering a stat from a 2016 Ipsos study across 23 countries, in which 63% of the public said they tend to buy brands that reflect their own values (up from 54% in 2014). Today, a business is judged by what it stands for – or stands up against – as well as what it sells. 

Unlike many companies, Nike is comfortable playing in that space. As its co-founder Phil Knight said in his book Shoe Dog, “You are remembered, he said, prophetically, for the rules you break.”

As our research shows, the hotter the topic, the fiercer the response. Commercial pragmatism must be weighed against principle.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer summed this up in the Harvard Gazette:

Few questions require more thought … than [the] question of when do you use the company’s voice and when do you not.

For Nike, all the indications are that its stance has actually strengthened its reputation among some of its most important consumers. If it was indeed a risk – and some interesting insights into the decision-making process are only just emerging – then it was a calculated one.

A second conclusion is that, whether or not one agrees with Nike’s stance, or sees it as opportunistic, it’s hard to level charges of inauthenticity. The company has a long track record of edgy, provocative campaigns featuring athletes such as Charles Barkley, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams. 

Why does that work for Nike? Because it’s intrinsically linked to what they do.

Ipsos Reputation Council Member


Controversy, they might legitimately claim, is in their DNA.

Thirdly, our own research suggests that for corporate reputation, hypocrisy is a cardinal sin. If you take a principled stand, you’d better practise what you preach. So, recent media allegations of a culture of sexual harassment and gender bias within Nike don’t sit comfortably with a brand that’s associated with diversity.

Finally, except in rare instances, reputations aren’t made or lost in the blink of an eye. Early forecasts that Nike’s reputation, sales and share price would collapse in the face of a backlash proved premature. 

As we’ve seen, the outcome so far has been more complicated than that (it looks very different from the UK than the US). In any case, Nike’s reputation, especially for consumers, is a complex mix of perceptions about its range, customer experience and corporate behaviour, not just its voice in policy debates.  

Of course, Nike is far from the only company to reach for the loud-hailer recently. The Harvard Business Review, in a piece titled ‘The New CEO Activists’, quoted Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan:

Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right…It’s not exactly political activism, but it is action on issues beyond business.

Is this a tipping point for corporate activism? It remains to be seen whether the majority of businesses have an appetite for controversy. But what’s not in doubt is this: Nike has raised the stakes.
 


 

 

  • Ipsos MORI interviewed 1175 people in the United States and 1001 in the UK.
  • Fieldwork dates were 21st September – 22nd October in the United States, and 21st September – 5th October in the UK.
  • All interviews took place online, among nationally representative samples.
  • The precision of Ipsos online polls are calculated using a Credibility Interval.  A poll of n=1,000 is accurate to +/- 3.5 percentage points, and a poll of n=500 is accurate to +/- 5.0 percentage points in each country’s general population.
  • Where results do not sum to 100%, this may be due to computer rounding, multiple responses, or the exclusion of “don’t know” categories

The author(s)

  • Matthew Painter UK Managing Director – Corporate Reputation

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