What was Nike thinking?

What was Nike thinking? Their latest campaign kickoff raised a lot of eyebrows and instantly sparked a heated debate launching the 30th anniversary of their “Just Do It” campaign.

Was that an ill-conceived plan, or was it a carefully calculated decision? Let’s dive in.

To begin, it’s worth noting that Nike had just signed a huge extension to be the official outfitter of NFL gear, from jerseys to shoes and everything in between. That means big money from arguably the country’s biggest sports league, but it also means even bigger money from the fans who purchase the gear to represent their favorite teams and players.

So, was making Colin Kaepernick the face of their latest marketing campaign a smart move for a company whose goal is to move merchandise to a diverse fanbase? The beleaguered quarterback, who hasn’t worked since taking a defiant on-field stance in protest of police brutality, has created polarizing opinions throughout the country, with everyone, including the President of the United States, taking a side.

The reactions on social media in the immediate moments afterward would indicate it was an ill-advised move. Calls for boycotts, videos of merchandise destruction, and very vocal denunciations clashed against cheers of support, showers of praise and verbal standing ovations across social media.

At the highest level, it seemed to split the nation into a “for it or against it” frenzy, with the online echo chambers respectively saying Nike would both sell more merch and lose customers all at once.

Surely Nike would’ve seen this coming, right? Probably so. Any company worth their salt wouldn’t make a big (and in this case, HUGE) marketing decision without first doing some research into whether or not this was a good idea for business.

Research, amongst many other things, can help you understand the demographics of your audience, as well as the temperament of the audience you are targeting. It can help determine how specific demographics of consumers feel about divisive issues, such as Kaepernick’s protests.

You don’t have to do too much digging to see that the demographic of people who strongly oppose Kaepernick’s actions aren’t the demographic Nike is targeting with their recent campaign. Furthermore, the market Nike is presumably going after in this bold advertising choice, strongly support Kaepernick’s actions.

Ultimately, what initially seemed like a big brand shooting itself in the foot, might’ve actually been a bold and calculated move bordering on brilliance. How? A poll conducted prior to, and immediately following the ads’ release showed favorability toward the brand dropping in all demographics, with 20% of all respondents saying they were less likely to watch football altogether. Meanwhile, in the days following the release, CNBC reported Nike saw its profit shares hit a record high while the Instagram post in question recorded the second most likes ever for the brand.

It’s one thing to create an ad campaign that appeals to your target demographic. But it’s something totally different to get consumers whom you aren’t targeting to amplify your message for you, even if it’s in a negative light.

It was a bold strategy, but Nike isn’t necessarily known as a company who plays it safe.