If Nike's goal with its Colin Kaepernick ad was to get attention, mission accomplished. The sports retail giant has stolen the spotlight in the sports world and beyond with the ad, which is largely seen as Nike supporting National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequalities.
It's a bold move in an age where marketers often talk a big game about becoming part of the cultural conversation, but often fall short by refusing to take much of a stand on anything. "Most brands try desperately to stay out of highly charged political issues. In this case Nike is almost inviting the controversy," says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
But the business payback for Nike remains in question. The company's stock price fell by roughly 3 percent by early afternoon Tuesday, as critics who oppose protesting during the anthem threatened to boycott the brand. Images of people burning Nike gear filled social media. But Nike was winning plenty of support, too, especially in key urban demographics. On social media, "#JustBurnIt" competed with "#ImWithKap."
"Nike likely weighed the risks beforehand but, in our view, while it is noble to take a stand on something, it is also commercially imprudent to dash headlong into a very sensitive issue which polarizes opinion," said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, which analyzes the retail industry, in a statement. "Although the company's stand may go down well on its native West Coast, it will be far less welcome in many other locations."
Yet others said the decision to tap Kaepernick in its campaign could help strengthen Nike, which has a history of standing behind controversial athletes. Nike stuck by Tiger Woods, for example, through his 2009 sex scandal as other endorsers backed away, including Gatorade, AT&T and Accenture.
Of course, the Kaepernick case is different. He's not accused of any wrongdoing; he just used his high-profile position as an NFL player to protest the anthem with a the goal of bringing attention to police brutality and social inequality. In doing so, he hit a nerve, with politicians and celebrities taking sides.
Critics, which include President Donald Trump, don't like the anthem being used that way. But Kaepernick has a decent approval rating with people who matter most to Nike: shoppers. YouGov, which tracks consumer perception of brands, found that 46% of current Nike customers have a positive opinion of Colin Kaepernick, compared to 34% of the general public.
"In my mind, this resonates with Nike's core customer," says Matt Powell, a sports analyst at market research firm NPD Group, noting that two-thirds of Nike's US athletic sales are to consumers under 35 years of age. "If we look at the studies that have been done on millennials and Gen Z, it's very clear that they want the brand that they buy to take visible stands on social issues."
Nike already has built-in brand love from millenials. Morning Consult found that 55 percent of millennials believe Nike has strong, positive values, according to polling done in July. Not surprisingly, the polling found that 71 percent of Trump voters said they would be less likely to buy from a company that supports anthem-kneeling.
But "the perception with African-Americans and those in urban culture is that Nike has in fact taken a stand to support the culture and they are in turn going to support the brand," says Ahmad Islam, CEO of Ten35, an agency that specializes in reaching multicultural, millennial and GenZ consumers.
Islam, who says he spent Sunday night studying the social media reaction, adds: "The people who view this as a strong stand are the same people who drive culture. If you think about it as a funnel, there are going to be some people falling out the bottom of the funnel, [but] there are also going to be a lot of people coming in the top."