kaepernick post header

Colin Kaepernick X Nike – what can Universities learn from it?

Estimated read time: 11 minutes

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

That’s the bold, brave and brilliant tagline from Nike that has transcended the Internet and sparked conversations around the world over the past couple of days. These few words, coupled with the face of the controversial Colin Kaepernick have made quite the impact.

Kaepernick’s story is summed up perfectly by the words found alongside his image in this Nike advert which is part of a wider campaign featuring a whole bunch of inspirational athletes.

But, naturally, it’s the use of Kaepernick himself that has polarised opinion.

It’s timely to reflect on this, coming hot on the heels of the controversial University of Essex tweets on A-level Results Day.

With that in mind, we tapped into the thoughts of the Natives Group’s CEO and their Creative Director to get their views on what Nike has done and to reflect on how this execution differed to some of the controversy seen on A-level Results Day. Plus some additional reflections from myself.

Steve Evans – Founder and CEO, Natives Group

Nike makes money from people buying their sneakers and sports gear, but “sells an attitude”. Epitomised for the past 30 years with their trademarked Just Do It™.

The Kaepernick campaign was a brand-wide, calculated move that has been invested in by every single member of the Nike regime. Supported top to bottom. They knew the risks, they measured it against potential bottom-line rewards.

The teams did their research – replica jerseys with Kaepernick’s name on them are still among the most popular among fans despite him not being in the league since 2017.

It’s worth noting, that our own survey of thousands of young people through our Student Hut panel, 60% of respondents stated that they do consider a brand’s ethics when making a purchase.

You can view the full report here.

Nike considered the risk and would have absolutely known this would upset a minority of NFL fans, but measured that against their aim of reaching audiences beyond the USA, into Europe, China and India. It’s certainly done this, it’s already generated $43 million in buzz for Nike so far.

Crucially, though, they had the strength to stand by their convictions. No backtracking here. Instead, they properly backed it up with ready-made content to support their position.

Perfectly demonstrated with the choreographed release of their Mexican advert.

Executed and choreographed beautifully, with some of the most high profile “influencers” seemingly to organically stand by the campaign.

I can’t help but note – why wouldn’t I, as CEO of a creative ad agency 😉 how this demonstrates the importance of a strong partnership between a brand and their creative advertising agency. Kudos to Nike and Wieden+Kennedy. Let’s not forget that it was founder Dan Wieden who came up with the icon slogan.

Nike has created something that defines their long-term brand purpose and positioning with something that was well researched, thought out and aimed to improve the bottom line.

Trump claims that the Nike share price is “being killed” turns out to be fake news, Nike is the 37th most popular stock on the brokerage, up from 57th last week and, more importantly, their core audience are the new investors.

Selling an attitude is fundamentally about shifting sneakers and improving the bottom line. Nike’s plan is paying off.

I don’t always agree with Mark Ritson, but in his article he quotes William Bernach – one of the founders of modern day advertising.

”If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you”.

Today more than ever, students want to be engaged and stand for something. The brave Universities that work out what they stand for will be the ones who cut through.

Charlie Penrose – Creative Director, Net Natives

As you’d expect from Nike, this campaign is a sublimely executed move. It features some of the greatest athletes in the world – so much so it could almost seem like a bit of a dick swinging exercise, a pointless vanity exercise to show off the strength of their contacts book and cram in as many big names as possible.

Instead, you’re left with the feeling that they stick up for the little guy. That’s Nike, global behemoth brand and champion of the underdog – how many of their peers can say that?

Any backlash is welcome, I’m sure, a ripple in the ocean getting much more attention than just another cracking Nike ad. Which as a 30th Anniversary of the greatest slogan ever is just what they want.

The whole thing is beautifully choreographed. They’re not just a sports brand, they’re an inspiration brand and this is perfect. Who wouldn’t be proud to stand up for racial equality and opportunity? Anyone who’s shocked by it forgot or didn’t know what they stand for – this is just a reminder.

It shows Nike knows who they are, what they want to stand for and that they have a clear idea of the sort of position that will resonate with a significant part of their audience.

But how it links to the Essex debacle? Ask yourself the same questions about the University of Essex that the world is asking about Nike. What do *those* Tweets say they stand for? Kicking sand at other universities?

In this instance Essex can’t defend their actions because there’s nothing to defend. Just some foolishness. These are two very different types of controversy.

So, what’s the lesson to learn here? Quite simple; if you’re going to make a noise about something and upset people make sure it comes from a position you’re willing – and want – to defend. And that’s worth defending.

Dave Musson – editor-in-chief, The Native

It couldn’t be more different to the Essex efforts, which this very site publicly backed and that certainly caught my attention on Result Day. On reflection and in comparison to this effort (and with Essex’s subsequent u-turn), they now come across as just a series of snarky tweets on a single day, without a strategy, without a link to the core brand proposition and speaking to an echo chamber that was always going to take offence.

Young people increasingly want brands to stand for something. Right now, that responsibility might be on big, lifestyle brands, but who’s to say a University can’t do the same?

There is absolutely no reason for them not to; look at what happened when the University of Reading told people to jog on.

The challenge is making sure that, when you’re ready to put yourself out there, you’ve worked on the strategy and you have the content and conviction to see it through – rather than blowing your load with some soon-to-be-deleted sparks of sassiness.

As I wrote in my original round-up of A-level Results Day, I was a big fan of the University of Essex’s approach – and still am. I can’t remember seeing a University display such a distinct character for a day. But that conviction to own their position and see it through was ultimately lacking.

Being controversial and picking a side won’t please everyone. As we’ve seen on many occasions, it will piss plenty off. But, ask yourself – do you really need to worry about those types who disagree with you?

Think instead of creating something that resonates with the type of person you actually want on your side. Get this sort of thing right and they’ll have your back for life.

So, here’s a call to Universities everywhere. Believe in something.