Nike, Kaepernick, and the messy world of branding in the Trump era

There are some who believe that anything done by a corporation is automatically tainted, but isn’t any ally a good ally?

Nike, Kaepernick, and the messy world of branding in the Trump era
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Nike’s latest “Just Do It” campaign set Twitter ablaze as soon as it went public. The ad prominently displays Colin Kaepernick’s face and this tagline: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The choice of Kaepernick, the former NFL player who has elicited decidedly mixed reactions from American consumers, is interesting, both in terms of what he represents as a voice for racial justice and what he means for Nike as a brand.


Earlier this year I had a conversation with Steven Heller, designer, historian, writer, and general creative, on what it looks like to have a brand in the Trump era. When we spoke, he said he didn’t think that companies would be overtly political–that this new era might even have a repressive effect on brands. “We know that the least courageous segment of the population is the retail industry,” he tells me. “They’re not going to lose a customer because they have a political point of view.”

By this logic, Nike would appear to be an outlier. Using Kaepernick’s image implies the company is aligning itself with the political views he stands for, even if it doesn’t say so outright. But while the decision may appear bold on its face, the company doesn’t appear to have risked very much at all. True, it has faced some backlash, but it’s not clear if it will suffer a long-term loss of customers. And it certainly hasn’t lost any money. Nike’s stock is up over 2% Monday, making up for any of last week’s losses. Online sales also seem to have risen, and it turns out the negative tweets from last week haven’t amounted to much.

Kaepernick, whose new jerseys just went on presale, has been a reliable personality for moving merchandise. Even after breaking up with the 49ers, Kaepernick’s jersey continued to be one of the most sellable in the second quarter of 2017. Nike will offer a whole line of Kaepernick apparel as part of the current deal, which the company has said will be on par financially with other “star” sports players with whom it has signed. At the same time, there are other players on Nike’s roster that could have headlined this year’s “Just Do It” campaign. The choice of Kaepernick is interesting, because he is so outspoken. It represents another layer in Nike’s autobiography.

“Brand stories are all about legacy and heritage,” Heller says, by which he means brand identities evolve over time; Patagonia wasn’t built in a day.

Consistency matters, too

Some companies know their audiences better than others, Heller says, and can make bold statements that they know will speak to them. As a case in point, he cited the Italian clothing brand United Colors of Benetton, which spent decades pushing captivating imagery–of immigrants seeking refuge by raft, of a same-sex pope and imam kissing, of two mothers wrapped in a blanket holding their infant, the list goes on—to, yes, sell clothes, but also to promote the idea that all people are equal.

Benetton’s approach to advertising has been parodied in years since its height, pointing a fat finger at the way brands have exploited social and political issues for financial gain (see: Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad). But unlike others that have adopted this marketing tactic, Benetton bolstered its messaging with the creation of a human rights foundation called UNHATE.


As for Nike, its track record isn’t so clean.

On the one hand, the company has long championed athletes of color, promoted the inclusion of women in sports, and supported disabled athletes in their ads. But its ads have largely played it safe, throwing weight behind issues like ageism and obesity. Its most prominent athlete brand, Michael Jordan, whose apparel line made up 8% of Nike’s 2017 revenues, has a history of staying mum on social and political issues.

At times when Nike has been bolder in its campaigns, it has hit the wrong note, such as in its “I am not a role model” campaign featuring Charles Barkley, which ran, as the New Yorker’Jelani Cobb notes, “in 1993, during the siege years of crack and AIDs.”

Nike also has a history of less than savory corporate behavior. It’s been sued for racial discrimination in its stores, sued for gender discrimination in its corporate hallways, and been repeatedly condemned for the conditions of its factories overseas. While the company has taken strides to reform its working conditions, it remains under the scrutiny of activists.

“Nike’s decision to stand with Colin Kaepernick, who has helped to elevate and amplify the work to fight against injustice in the face of issues related to policing and mass incarceration has the potential for broad cultural reach,” says Rashad Robinson, President of Color Of Change, a civil rights advocacy group that with a history of pushing corporations to act ethically. “However, at no point can we ignore the work that Nike has to do to address their very real issues with human rights and bias.”

This history could haunt Nike as it seeks to capture a new, younger audience. As my colleague Liz Segran noted in a recent piece regarding the ad, the next generation of consumers leans liberal. They’re also more skeptical of brands and have a nose for bullshit. At the same time, the role of the athlete in public discourse is changing. As Cobb says in his context-setting piece for the New Yorker, “There was once a firewall that, at least in the eyes of the public, divided black athletes from the concerns of being black in the United States. . . . That separation is no longer possible.”


In September of last year, the typically apolitical Michael Jordan finally spoke out. It was after President Trump grandly uninvited the Golden State Warriors to the White House, because player Stephen Curry said he would stay home in protest of Trump’s treatment of Kaepernick and others. “One of the fundamental rights this country is founded on was freedom of speech, and we have a long tradition of nonviolent, peaceful protest,” he said, vowing his support for the NBA, its players, and anyone wishing to exercise their right to free speech. “Those who exercise the right to peacefully express themselves should not be demonized or ostracized.”

Nike, too, may be shifting the way it navigates the issues. As part of the deal with Kaepernick, the company is donating to his nonprofit organization Know Your Rights. It also may have forced the NFL, which it recently signed an eight-year contract with, to adopt a more progressive stance. Kaepernick is currently suing members of the league for colluding to prevent him from getting a new contract. The case was given merit in April when an arbiter denied the NFL’s request for dismissal and allowed the case to proceed to a hearing. Shortly after Nike’s ad went live, the NFL released the following statement:

“The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities. The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”

If Nike keeps moving in this direction, it may be building a more consistent brand image, and something more: choosing a side. Or it could simply be profiting off of social issues it deems ready for the mainstream, as it always has. There are plenty of people who aren’t buying Nike’s sudden interest in Kaepernick’s cause.

As we were finishing our conversation last year, Heller said, as we’ve all well come to know, that we’re living in politically unprecedented times. I asked him whether he thinks consumers will be warier of brands in the Trump era. “There are friends of mine who feel like anything done by a corporation is tainted automatically,” he says. “I may have felt that way 30-40 years ago. But now I feel like any ally is a good ally.”

Reflecting on Nike’s campaign, I wonder if consumers will feel the same.


About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.