A Reputation Win for Nike

The decision by Nike to feature former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in its new ‘Just Do It’ ad campaign is more than a brand play, it has significant long-term benefits for Nike’s corporate reputation. Large companies today need to show agility and verve. This is an example of a return to the roots of the corporation, to founder Phil Knight’s “go for it” mentality, the entrepreneurial instinct to take the chance to win.

The Kaepernick decision goes back to the founding ethos of Nike. Here is Knight in his memoir, Shoe Dog. “Like my friends I wanted to be successful. Unlike my friends I did not know what that meant…I had an aching sense that our time is short, shorter than we ever know, short as a morning run, and I wanted mine to be meaningful. And purposeful. And creative. And important. And above all different.”

One stakeholder group catalyzed by this decision is the employees. The company that is willing to wade into the issues of the day will earn much more than positive media and stakeholder attention. It will become the subject of social conversations. And the source of pride to employees, who in a full employment economy have their choice of company to work for. As noted in prior blog posts, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that “my employer” is now the most trusted institution, at 75 percent globally, well above business or any other sector. 

This action also returns Nike to its position of leadership in marketing. Brands can no longer buy consumer relationship, they earn it through action. This recognition of Kaepernick puts Nike in a place beyond its iconic ads for Michael Jordan, whose brilliance on the basketball court is well remembered by this Chicagoan. But Jordan stayed out of the political fray, letting his game speak for itself. Whether you agree or disagree with Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem, which he has stated is to protest police shootings of African-Americans and other social injustices faced by black people in the United States, it is one of the boldest political statements made by a modern-day athlete.

Large companies, especially those in the consumer sector, have been losing market share to entrepreneurial start-ups, some of which like Chobani or The Honest Company have grown to scale. The best performing units of some the world’s largest companies are the start-ups they have acquired. These brands continue to take strong positions on significant social topics, such as LGBTQ issues, sustainability and immigration, even after they’ve been acquired. The magic is not simply in taking these brands into new retail channels or global markets, it is in remaining true to the values and core ethos they were founded on. With this latest iteration of the ‘Just Do It’ campaign, Nike has boldly returned to its founding philosophy.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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