Nike is no stranger to politics.
With 54 years of brand experience in its back pocket, Nike has demonstrated, again and again, that the line between brand and politics is a hard one to define. Just weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Nike released “Equality,” an ad featuring LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Gabby Douglas, among other prominent black athletes. The message was clear: “Encourage people to take the fairness and respect they see in sport and translate them off the field.” So after signing a deal with NFL free agent and social rights activist Colin Kaepernick, Nike proved once again that taking a stance is part of its brand.
Let’s take a look at some of the factors that contributed to Nike’s 31 percent spike in online sales following the ad release.
1. Do not underestimate the power of visual storytelling.
Marking the 30th anniversary of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, the new ad is not simply a commercial that advertises the company’s athletic apparel. It is a production, a film, an attempt to transform Nike from a shoe company into a lifestyle brand. It takes not only visual aesthetics into account but the value of audio as well. Kaepernick’s voice is a decisive backdrop to a compilation of clips highlighting world-class athletes, underdog success stories, and Kaepernick’s personal triumphs. The words themselves (“Don’t believe you have to be like anybody to be somebody.”) read like lyrics. It is that entertainment factor that pushes the “Dream Crazy” video beyond the traditional scope of advertising.
2. Messaging is key.
Not once does Nike mention its products — and yet, without saying a word, Nike apparel suddenly seems to mean something much greater than comfortable exercise-wear. Nike strategically designed the “Dream Crazy” message to appeal to a largely young, liberal-skewing demographic. This works for two reasons. Firstly, pathos, while invisible, is a powerful advertising tool. Secondly, the next time someone within Nike’s demographic thinks about their athletic aspirations, they will think of Nike. This technique is best described using another example. With its 1997 “Think Different” campaign, Apple famously connected its brand not to computers but to innovation and creativity.
3. History matters.
Despite some backlash and an initial 3 percent dip in stock price, the ad’s greatest achievement is making Nike culturally relevant. Had Nike released a traditional ad featuring its products, no one would be talking about the brand. “Nike wants to be on the right side of history and the right side of its core consumers,” said Antonio S. Williams, a sports marketing professor at Indiana University. Especially for a company that has not always been socially cognizant (re: unsafe labor conditions at its foreign factories in the 1990s), it’s important now more than ever for the company to define its brand. In Nike’s case, that means standing up for something you believe in.
4. Plan partnerships strategically.
While Kaepernick was “blackballed” by the NFL after igniting the anthem kneeling movement, Nike was, and is, the exclusive provider of the NFL’s jerseys. So choosing Kaepernick as the face of the 30th anniversary of “Just Do It” toed a tremendously precarious line. However, the unapologetically bold, 2-minute ad weighs risk with gain. Wholly embracing Kaepernick as an athlete, activist, and icon, Nike maximized the ad’s effect by holding nothing back and being truly authentic. Signing on Kaepernick was equal parts a political move and a marketing move.
At a time when everyone who wears athletic apparel is looking at Nike, other companies must work to regain attention and customers. As Nike transforms the shoe industry, other companies must choose whether to follow suit or remain traditional. And perhaps, in that sense, the new ad’s tagline is applicable not only to Kaepernick but to the Nike brand itself: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”