Shoe burners flameout: Nike's Kaepernick ad led to sales uptick

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Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Tapping controversial athlete Colin Kaepernick in its latest campaign has certainly been building buzz for Nike. Now, a new report suggests it may be building sales for the sportswear giant as well—despite all those flaming sneaker photos from disgruntled customers.

Online sales of Nike products grew 31 percent from Sunday, Sept. 2, through Tuesday, Sept. 4, this year, compared with a 17 percent increase over the same period in 2017, according to data released Friday by Edison Trends, which tracks digital commerce. News of Kaepernick's involvement in the polarizing campaign, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of "Just Do It," first broke on Sept. 3.

A lengthy, two-minute-long spot, "Dream Crazy," starring Kaepernick and athletes such as Serena Williams hit consumers' inboxes two days later, on Wednesday. It debuted on TV Thursday night during NBC's broadcast of the NFL season opener.

The involvement of Kaepernick incited backlash for Nike by some shoppers who equated the decision with Nike's support of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Kaepernick began the movement in 2016 to protest racial inequalities when he played for the San Francisco 49ers. Some consumers said they would boycott Nike, and incinerate its products.

Yet the ad, by Wieden & Kennedy, might have landed better with viewers than such social media drama suggested. The polarity score for "Dream Crazy" was within the 10th percentile of all ads, meaning it was "agreeable," according to ad tracking firm Ace Metrix.

"These results show once again that oftentimes, social media backlash can be amplified by media attention while representing only a small minority of haters," said Ace Metrix CEO Peter Daboll, said in a statement.

While the ad is scoring points for Nike among a huge swath of consumers, the company is still dealing with negative publicity for its continuing workplace struggles.

Last week, a group of shareholders sued the Beaverton, Oregon-based company, alleging a boys' club culture. The complaint, brought by Shiva Stein, Alison Sherman and Lisa Udine and seeking $20 million in damages, accused Nike of widespread bullying and gender discrimination of female employees, as detailed in numerous news reports. It named executives including founder Phil Knight, Chief Executive Mark Parker and board member Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, as defendants, noting they "repeatedly turned a blind eye to the longstanding culture of harassment and discrimination at Nike."

It's the second lawsuit in as many months for Nike, which was sued in a class-action lawsuit in August by four former female employees alleging sex discrimination. Nearly a dozen executives have left the brand since the spring, when reports of a toxic work culture for employees first began to surface.

But the lawsuits this week have been overshadowed by the Kapernick ad, which as of early afternoon Friday had amassed nearly 12 million views on YouTube. The anthem debate "hits an emotional tone that consumers respond to more than complicated legalistic business-oriented messaging," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco who studies millennial consumers, referring to the lawsuits Nike is facing.

"Nike is in control of this communications. So they are the ones really shouting loudly that they are supporting Kaepernick. There is no volume of discord that matches that for their internal atrocities," she adds. "So it just doesn't get as much attention. And I also feel like it's less exciting to consumers."

Nike's most high-profile critic is President Donald Trump, but he has been fixated on players protesting the anthem, and Nike's support of that cause, more than anything else. He continued to throw red meat to his political base with a tweet early Friday morning that asked, "What was Nike thinking?"

Credit: Sean Clancy via Twitter

Organizations joining in the Nike bashing include College of the Ozarks, a private Christian college in Missouri. The school announced that it will remove all athletic uniforms purchased from Nike or that contain the Nike logo. "If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them," College of the Ozarks President Jerry C. Davis said in a press release. "We also believe that those who know what sacrifice is all about are more likely to be wearing a military uniform than an athletic uniform."

Trump's invective, if anything, will likely increase support for Nike among young, progressive consumers that the ad appears to target. And right now, Nike, thanks to the ad, is a symbol for Kaepernick's social justice cause.

"People look to brands to speak for them, to speak for their complaints and their angst and their anger," Yarrow says. Nike's ad "unites people emotionally. And I think people are so hungry to feel like they are connected to anything, and belong to anything, and united in any way, that they succumb"

A Nike spokesman did not return a request for comment.

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