Analyzing Nike’s Controversial Just Do It Campaign

Jerome ConlonSeptember 5, 20188 min

Is the new Kaepernick 30th Anniversary Just Do It Campaign a smart move for the Nike brand? In this age of polarization and change, every brand owner should find Nike’s decision worth analyzing. For me, it’s of particular interest as I held the position of Director of Marketing Insights & Planning for Nike From 1986 – 1996 and was at the very core of Just Do It, providing the brand brief to Scott Bedbury, Nike’s Advertising Director prior to its creation.

So, let’s begin by taking a look at some of the controversial aspects of the Kaepernick JDI campaign. Perhaps the first question to ask about this campaign from a brand planners perspective is:

What is it about Colin Kaepernick’s character that Nike finds so important to attach it to the Nike brand?

Developing brand character has many things in common with screenwriting, and the attempt to develop relatable characters for film and TV. Relatable characters are drawn up as sympathetic heroes on a mission to achieve worthy goals. They’re often created as original, attractive, intelligent and provocative, and definitely not cliché, predictable or superficial. They have a definite point of view and a convincing way of getting it across. Many also have an underlying sense of humor and irony, which help makes it easy for people to relate to them. They’re frequently involved in acts of moral integrity to resolve some sort of problem or dilemma, and they speak in a distinctive voice that resonates. As their story develops, the complexity of their character emerges, often showing surprising depth. Above all, relatable characters get people talking about them.

In Nike’s current campaign, Kaepernick has certainly demonstrated that he has character, conviction about his beliefs, concern for social justice and he certainly has people talking about him. But, is he really a sympathetic hero? To segments of society struggling with experiences of social injustice he definitely is. However, to segments of society who honor the symbols of our national idea, identity and ceremonies he carries strong and negative emotional associations.

Risk Or Reward?

In launching this new campaign Nike is risking alienating a huge segment of its U.S. consumer base, perhaps as much as half. Why would they do that? Perhaps they are thinking that it will tighten the tribe with millennials, who tend to be involved in protest movements, particularly when political leaders and other authority figures are not aligned with their feelings and values. They see Kaepernick as a champion of individual rights, fighting for a sense of social justice, for not just people of color, but all minorities and people who feel at times like second class citizens.

How people are regarded and respected is of course a big issue and potentially an explosive one. High or low regard is a powerful human emotion, that can be conveyed by a tone, a look, a posture, a gesture and certainly by actions, words and behaviors that are routinely demonstrated.  To have a high regard for the people you serve, work, play or communicate with is a necessary prerequisite if you wish to achieve sympathetic resonance, relevance and salience as a brand. Low regard and low respect can be felt a mile away and sucks the energy out of the invisible brand field. These emotional forces now present a dilemma for Nike. This campaign is simultaneously projecting both high and low regard energies to different segments of the population. That is what makes this campaign so emotionally polarizing.

So, this campaign will scatter parts of the Nike tribe, of loyal American patriots and people who serve or have served in our armed forces, government or institutions that rely closely on a healthy government and national image. These people see not standing for the national anthem at a sporting event as an outward sign of disrespect for the idea of America and all the sacrifices made in the name of the nation. They see the gestures taken by Colin Kaepernick as a sign of questionable character. They see his public gestures as inappropriate and out of place.

For these reasons, I view the 30th Anniversary of ‘Just Do It’ campaign as delivering some short-term pain for the Nike brand. It will not accomplish what the original JDI campaign did.

The original Just Do It campaign was designed around the idea of celebrating the joy of the experience of participating in sports and fitness activities when they are as good as they get. It was not polarizing, it was inclusive, unifying and celebratory in tone. The original idea of celebrating the joy of all kinds of sports and fitness activities could be sympathetically interpreted for everyone, pro sports athletes to fitness amateurs, young and old, men and women, people in America, people around the world. No one was excluded.

This latest version of the Just Do It however, I predict will generate a level of social debate that, over time, will elevate greater social understanding for the risk Nike has taken with this campaign. For many urban and minority professional athletes this campaign will draw them closer to the brand. They like that Nike is supporting individual athlete rights, acts of moral conscience, conviction and protest. For the league or the nation to criticize their freedom of speech or expression is dimly viewed. But, the fact that we can have dialog about the pro’s and con’s of such an event and moment in our history, speaks loudly about American values and human values. The current debate would probably make the founding fathers of the United States proud.

The founding fathers were adept at reconciling conflict, contradiction and paradox. Sometimes the process of reconciling the opposing forces (contradiction) is referred to as the paradox process. We all have the power in our minds to meditate on the nature of any conflict. To examine the opposing forces with an eye towards reconciliation. This work is performed inside our minds, in the location of the third eye (aka the inner eye). After a sufficient period of mediation, if one is earnest in seeking a new solution, one often experiences a shift in cognition, where in a blinding flash of revelation a new solution is presented. This entire process of movement of thought from lower to higher levels is codified in a symbol found on the dollar bill. The unfinished pyramid with the all-seeing eye at the top is also a symbol for the paradox process, which our founding fathers wanted to encode into our government institutions, through debate, to help make the nation a better place.

So at the end of the first day of the campaign launch, Nike’s stock declined 3.2%. After the initial PR storm blows over how this campaign plays out on sales and company valuation will take a quarter or two. The polarity of feelings about it will drive some people into and out of the brand.

Dan Wieden, co-founder of W+K, Nike’s Ad Agency and the originator of the Just Do It slogan once said, “to be on the cutting edge means someone or something needs to be cut”. He wasn’t afraid to take controversial chances and he loved working on Nike’s business because this was part of Nike’s brand DNA from the start.

What do I personally sense will be the result of this campaign on the Nike brand? Nike is a very ubiquitous brand. It has broad global appeal. In the U.S. market I sense this campaign will polarize its customer base and result in a loss of some business. How much is hard to say. It could be substantial if enough loyal patriots are activated to send a signal to Kaepernick and Nike for their perceived disrespect. In a global sense, this campaign will probably generate a net gain in brand sentiment. Millennials and people of different ethnic backgrounds will probably identify with the nerve that Kaepernick had to protest a perceived injustice, at risk of harming his playing career. So, in these circles, he’s perceived as a bit of a martyr for a cause bigger than himself.

The irony in this controversy, is that the idea of America, its founding values, gives Colin the right to free speech and expression. At the end of a critical analysis using the paradox process both the idea of respect for free speech, protest, American national pride and the ideal that Colin Kaepernick is fighting for (social justice) can all co-exist at the same time. To think that we have a choice of one or the other is a false choice. America is a great nation because we can speak our minds in the taking on of worthy causes, even in the face of conflicted opinions. Many times we get caught on the twin horns of a dilemma by our perception of false choices, either choosing one side or the other, not seeing with our inner eye that a solution can exist that reconciles both ends of the spectrum. After several quarters of social media dialog on this subject, I expect our collective consciousness on this topic will rise higher and advance.

My prediction: Short-term pain for Nike’s brand, but long-term gain. The social discussion around the campaign will elevate public understanding of the greatness of America and the need for more respect and regard for all people, of all colors and classes. The evolution of our understanding of this topic will in the long-term allow some defectors to come back to the Nike brand. Some, but not all. Not all people are cut out for critical thinking or the use of a problem solving tool like the Paradox Process. Critical thinking is hard work and it requires shifting perspectives, walking around issues and looking at them from all sides. Not everyone is willing or able to do this kind of work. Extolling them to ‘Just Do It’ is by itself is not enough.

So, Nike is taking a big risk by running this campaign. It’s a character defining moment for the brand. The question of course is around ‘What kind of character?’ Positive or negative. The public will ultimately decide this.

What are your thoughts? Do you think Nike is setting a positive example here or a negative one? Send us your comments, questions, insights or perspectives. Or comment below. This is a worthy social debate.

The Blake Project Can Help: The Brand Positioning Workshop

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education

FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers

Jerome Conlon


  • Gregor Hakkenberg

    September 5, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Excellent analysis. I think the biggest eye opener for me is the idea that Nike is a global brand. If in the USA feeling may be balanced 50/50 in the Kaepernick debate, in the rest of the world the vast majority will be on the side of the lone protester, braving the wrath of the nation and risking his career to make his point. I don’t know how the business of Nike is divided between domestic and international, but I think this might have been a smart move.

    In any case, the shift of meaning of the JDI-claim opens up a whole new perspective for the brand, the single line of ‘pushing your physical limits’ fanning out to all disruptive behaviour for the sake of an ideal. I love it and am eager to see the creative and strategic teams build on this.

  • Timo Miettinen

    September 6, 2018 at 4:36 am

    A European perspective: this is spot on.

    Nike is taking a clear stance against the current political situation in the US. For us in Europe, it is comforting to see a brand to show that it has a spine to stand against all the negative political development that is currently going on. This campaign will most certainly get a lot of support from European customers. At least in my social media, people are vying for Nike for their brave campaign.

    Even if the stock took a dip after the announcement, my guess is that Nike will see a surge in sales internationally, which will compensate the initial reaction.

    And then, in two years it will be time for new elections, a new president, and Nike will still be standing tall. Victorious.

    They will be able to say: “Where were you at a time, when brave actions for the sport and equality were needed?”. Priceless.

  • Linda Franklin

    September 6, 2018 at 5:24 am

    Fantastic analysis. One of the best I have read yet. I love your point of the meaning of the original logo “…was designed around the idea of celebrating the joy of the experience of participating in sports and fitness activities when they are as good as they get. It was not polarizing.” That is sports. Sports brings people together of all backgrounds – why I love watching the Olympics or doing local 10ks. Nike’s campaign is dividing –much like the US today. I feel they could have done better. Maybe if I knew more about Kaepernick -what is he doing for the community other than getting even more rich off this advertising? –Might help me change my mind. From a business view point I agree – short term loss…in a few months no one will remember this ad and business as usual.

  • Patrick Berzai

    September 6, 2018 at 8:41 am

    Oh the contortions people make to drown their reasoning. “Don’t get sentimental; it always ends up drivel” – Radiohead, “Let Down”

    As an advertising campaign, it’s already failed. $43MM in free media doesn’t replace a $3.75Bn market cap loss. It’s over.

    This is a political campaign, disguised as a marketing campaign, to benefit Nike. In the post Citizens United world, where brands have an electoral voice, this is about who will (specifically, in Congress) defend the status quo on tariffs. Nike, who prefers the status quo, invested billions in Chinese supply chains. But market forces – and Trump tariffs – are causing companies to both expatriate from China and repatriate to the US.

    What is Nike to do? All they can do is invest their considerable marketing dollars not so much on getting people to buy their shoes, but getting people who both do and DONT even buy their shoes to flip the House in the midterms so that they can enforce the status quo on tariffs, protecting Nike’s Chinese (and from some accounts, North Korean) supply chains.

  • Janice M. Thurs-Sherlock

    September 6, 2018 at 8:50 am

    “…How much is hard to say. It could be substantial if enough loyal patriots are activated to send a signal to Kaepernick and Nike for their perceived disrespect. In a global sense, this campaign will probably generate a net gain in brand sentiment. Millennials and people of different ethnic backgrounds will probably identify with the nerve that Kaepernick had to protest a perceived injustice, at risk of harming his playing career. So, in these circles, he’s perceived as a bit of a martyr for a cause bigger than himself.”

    I believe many of the “loyal patriots” mentioned do not understand that Kaepernick is not disrespecting this country or the flag, but rather the actions taken towards people of color in this nation. If they were loyal patriots, they would understand that this country is made up of many patriotic people AND that they come in many colors and with a variety of beliefs.

    I don’t believe that dead black people killed by police without cause is a “perceived injustice.” It is a huge, flaming injustice to all Americans; if it was white people being assassinated in this way, there would be a big stink.

    You may have a lot of marketing savvy, but this article seems to be written by a guy with an abundance of experience with white privilege.

  • Jerome Conlon

    September 6, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks everyone for your feedback and response. And Janice M. thank you for pointing out the challenge of “perception” which is that one person’s center is another person’s periphery. This is primarily an educational article, not an advocacy platform for one side or the other. The aim of the article is to predict the likely outcome of the impact of this campaign on the Nike brand, from a brand planning perspective. If you read the article carefully all the way through you can see I am predicting success for Nike with this campaign, even though there will be allot of opposition to it. It wasn’t until after I’d written the article that I saw the “Crazy Dreams” video that injects more context into why Colin Kaepernick was chosen as the voice of the campaign. Nike is no stranger to playing the lightening rod supporting athletes rights, dreams and addressing societal issues. It is a risky business and takes guts but Nike has done this many times before. Very few public companies ever make these sharp calls. Nike management’s gutsy thought leadership over the years, approving of controversial campaigns, shows an adeptness in reading the public mood, advocating social and personal truths. They know their brand franchise has to be made relevant with each new generation. Adidas ads recently to millennials, ‘Originality is Never Finished’ and ‘Creativity is the Answer’ have raised the relevance bar for that brand vs. Nike. Now Nike has something highly resonant with millennials to fight back with.

  • Michael Gold

    September 6, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    The piece misses one really important possibility, that the board of Nike — or however high in the organization this decision rose — like the headline says, actually believes in something.

    Not to minimize the importance of sales. But maybe they also know something about the importance of values to the Nike customer.

Comments are closed.

Connect With Us