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Kaepernick v. Marketing — Game Changer or Bad for Business?

Kevin Cranfill

Kevin Cranfill

February 19

Colin Kaepernick and the NFL may have settled their collusion case last week, but the question of the marketing world’s response to the impassioned discussion over race, activism and free expression that the incident triggered remains an open debate.

Let’s debate it.

What of Nike’s decision to either: A) Throw its considerable clout behind a courageous quarterback’s principled stand; or B) Manipulate the situation for its own gain by cynically exploiting one of the most provocative issues of our time – essentially pressing everybody’s buttons?

What of a certain sporting goods store in Colorado that boycotted Nike over the company’s pro Kaepernick ads only to find itself forced out of business less than six months later?

Then there was Kaepernick’s home state of Wisconsin, which decided to exclude their native son from a list of people the state is honoring for black history month. Too controversial, they said.

What does it all mean to our clients and the brands we toil for?

We all know the backstory. Last fall, Nike celebrated the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan with a campaign starring the world’s most famous unemployed QB. That would be Kap of course, who became an overnight zeitgeist whether he liked it or not. It was hard to say. He sidestepped interview requests like they were pass rushers.

“Believe in something,” Kap/Nike told us, from the relative safety of a moodily lit black and white photo, “Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Supporters cried “amen,” heaping praise on Kap for continuing to take a stand and on Nike for backing an athlete courageous enough to take a knee. Detractors claimed the campaign was an affront to decency. Never mind kneeling, they cried. This was Nike effectively prostrating itself before the altar of brand vanity and crass, commercial consumerism.

Supporters rallied and sent messages of support. Detractors burned their Nike shoes or refused to stock the provocative sporting goods maker’s apparel, to their own peril. (Talk about sacrificing everything.)

Like public opinion, Nike’s stock fluctuated. The controversial campaign was praised for the ups and blamed for the downs.

The marketing world was abuzz. “Retail activism seldom sticks,” tut-tutted the Wall Street Journal, insisting the campaign’s impact on sales would be negligible. “$43 million in media exposure in one week is no small shakes,” crowed Forbes, citing Apex Marketing Group.

Meanwhile, marketers being marketers, anybody not snared in the controversy felt both secretly relieved and jealously left out.

Now, Kaepernick has reached a legal settlement with the NFL, even if the nature of the settlement remains as mysterious as the principled QB’s motivation for settling it. (Wait: If he received a hefty settlement payout, does that mean he didn’t sacrifice everything?)

Kap’s and the NFL’s motivations aside, what if anything can marketers take away from the incident? It’s not the first time the worlds of advertising and current events have collided and it won’t be the last. What have we learned, apart from the fact that there are more Kap supporters in Colorado than the owner of at least one sporting goods store previously thought?

Leaving the country’s continued struggles with racial justice for another blog (and another blogger), marketing professionals are left to ponder the eternal question: As the play callers of the perception business, should we be leaders or followers? Focus groups or the common good? Which should it be? Which path is in the best interest of our clients?

Mike Morbeck / Flickr

There’s no easy answer, there’s probably no single answer, but the question won’t go away anytime soon. Kap may have settled his grievance with the NFL, but the debate over moving the needle versus moving the goalposts promises to continue.

It’s not the issue, it’s how we use it.

How do you?

One thought on “Kaepernick v. Marketing — Game Changer or Bad for Business?”

  1. I’m pro Kaep, have been from the start. I think the media threw gasoline on this little fire and it grew into a roaring inferno because there have been racial problems/tensions in this country forever. Let’s be clear that I think he always wanted to bring attention to Police Brutality and more specifically to young, colored men.

    I think Nike was very calculated about this. You don’t spend that kind of money on an ad campaign, that runs during the Super Bowl, without doing all sorts of customer research ahead of time. My guess is that their close to scientific calculations were that this would help sales, but even more important, it would help their brand. They are in a huge battle with Adidas, and UnderArmor and by running this ad, they are carving out a unique space for themselves in the shoe/apparel war. We are the courageous brand, we are the brand that stands on principle over profit, we are the brand that does what they believe in and doesn’t care if everyone joins in our cause. I believe inside every great athlete’s soul, they have a chip on their shoulder, and have been told so many times that they can’t do great things. Nike has tapped into that, and isn’t that what you want in your brand? Don’t you want to be the brand that understands it’s customer and creates an emotional connection? Maybe I’m wrong, but you don’t need a focus group to know this was a good move. Just watch the video. Just do it.

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