PUBLIC POV: One Fell Swoosh

This is one to watch.

30 years after launching its iconic “Just Do It” campaign, Nike has echoed the aggressive ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach of the original and come out swinging with a new campaign fit for the Trump era, unapologetically wrapping its brand up in one of the most contentious American political issues of the day.

By making Colin Kaepernick the new face of “Just Do It”, Nike is explicitly backing the former NFL star’s fight – police treatment of black men, women and people of colour – and throwing its multibillion dollar weight behind those agitating for racial justice.

Wherever you come down on the politics of the issue, Nike’s position takes some guts. After all, this is a publicly-traded company with multiple stakeholders and the NFL players’ protest has become one of the most contentious issues in contemporary American culture. Why would Nike throw fuel on this particular fire?

Several reasons.

First, you have to assume the company really does believe in the cause. If Nike didn’t have the track record to back up its position, the Kaepernick/Just Do It ad would ring hollow. In the intense backlash against the ad – it rocked Nike’s share price, although, as of this writing it seems to have stabilized; destruction of Nike products on social media, etc. – no serious observer has accused Nike of cynically exploiting an issue they don’t care about.

Second, Nike has cultivated close relationships with black athletes and cultural figures since the 1980s and Kaepernick is the face of a problem that tops the list of concerns for many African-Americans. In that respect, it’s a bit of a no-brainer for Nike to embrace this issue.

The final reason is something PUBLIC, Canada’s leading social impact agency, talks about a lot. Whether you like it or not, brands today are becoming more overtly political as the lines between citizens and consumers continues to blur. There are three reasons for this:

Consumers are demanding more

According to Nielson, 81% of millennials expect companies to go beyond generating profit and to serve as drivers of change and become active in their communities.

Employees are expecting more

44% of employees surveyed by PR firm Weber Shandwick reported they would feel more loyalty towards their CEO if he or she took a stand on a hotly debated issue versus 19% who said they would not.

More is being asked of business

Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer finds that 64% of the general public says CEOs should take the lead on social change. As Scott Maxwell of OpenView venture Partners has written, “when it’s impacting your bottom line, hurting recruiting, or frankly, it’s just the right thing to do, you need to take a stand and speak up for what you believe.”

At PUBLIC, we focus on a company’s purpose ambition: the combination of the social impact your company hopes to make in the world and your preferred approach (incremental, bold, etc.) in support of a defined business objective.

Nike has taken its fair – and deserved – share of lumps over the years (for workplace misconduct and child labour, for example). But on this issue, at least, the company’s ambition is likely to be well-served by its brave and calculated political stance.


Dan Dunsky is VP, Engagement at PUBLIC, Canada’s leading social impact agency.


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