Last week, Nike launched its 30th anniversary campaign by unveiling a close-up of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick with the caption “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The photo sparked the ire of some because of Kaepernick’s history of protesting police violence by kneeling during the National Anthem. Backlash to the ad was immediate, with outraged counter-protesters cutting the Nike logos from socks and setting sneakers (that had already been paid for) aflame to both cheers and derision on social media. The photo even prompted President Trump to ask what the brand was thinking in a Tweet.
However, all the negative press and social media scrutiny could have been just what the brand was looking for. After the launch of the photo and subsequent, longer ad, Nike’s sales shot up 31%, nearly double that of the previous year. But the question remains: will this goodwill continue? Experts are divided on the issue.
“[The increase in sales] is not sustainable in the long term,” according to Julia Gardener CEO of MAAST Digital. “The more Nike continues to use Kaepernick in their campaigns, the more consumers will look for other alternative brands.”
Gardener could be correct, since following the sales spike on Tuesday, Nike’s sales decreased by 18%, though that simply put the brand back to the levels they were at before the ad.
However, according to Steve Mast, President and Chief Innovation Officer behind Methodify, Nike’s motive for the controversial ad may not have been short term sales but long-term brand affinity.
“The campaign is pretty forward thinking in terms of the audience they’re going after,” Mast says. “Nike’s not worried about guys in their 40s. They’re looking at that next generation. Whether you love it or hate it, everybody is talking about the brand, especially gen Z.”
If the real goal behind Nike’s new campaign was to appeal to a younger generation, then they picked the right face for their ads. According to a study by media company Awsomeness, 80% of teens support the Black Lives Matter movement, and further studies show that the majority of Black people, young people, and Democrats view Kaepernick’s actions as “the right thing to do.”
Since Generation Z holds $143 billion in direct buying power—and counting—it stands to reason that Nike would want to stay in their good graces. Studies show that both millennials and gen Z are more interested in brands that take a stand. By launching the campaign on social media, rather than TV, it’s pretty clear that Nike had its young fans in mind with the ad, which has 25 million views on YouTube (Gen Z’s favorite social channel) and over 2 million Twitter mentions, up 135% from the week before the ad.
The dividing line between states that bought more Nikes in the wake of the Kaepernick controversy and states that didn’t isn’t politics, but age. Among the states that saw the biggest decrease in sales after the Kaepernick ad, according to Edison, were Vermont, West Virginia, and Montana, all of which are included in the top ten states with the oldest residents, according to Pew research. Alternately, red state Alaska, which has the second youngest population in America, was one of the states that saw the sharpest increase in sales after the Kaepernick ad.
Creating brand affinity among younger generations is something many brands have tried (and failed) to do in recent years. For example, last year, Pepsi made a major misstep by casting Kendall Jenner as the hero of a vague protest who bonded with a police officer over a shared Pepsi. The ad was all over the place with no clear message about Black Lives Matter, police violence, or the culture of protest among many younger Americans.
“Many people criticized the racial tone-deafness of the ad,” says Gardener. “It even prompted Bernice King [daughter of Martin Luther King] to tweet “If only daddy would have known about the power of #pepsi.” For a company known for their diversity, it is perplexing that everyone who produced and approved the commercial didn’t link it back to Black Lives Matter.”
In light of the backlash, Pepsi made the decision to pull the ad, unlike Nike, which continues to stand by its message even though some took offense.
And while some have criticized the Kaepernick-narrated ad for not featuring Kaepernick’s protest or even footage of him playing football, there’s no denying that Nike acknowledged the controversy they were courting, which according to Mast, should work in their favor in the long run.
“Nike picked the exact right time to resonate and elevate their brand back into the conversation on their terms,” Mast says. “Pepsi tried to do the same thing, but the difference is they didn’t own it the way Nike is owning it. What Nike has done is to actually take a stand.”
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