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Marketing with a purpose works for Nike

  • The Nike ads featuring Colin Kaepernick have sparked strong feelings, both pro and con.

    The Nike ads featuring Colin Kaepernick have sparked strong feelings, both pro and con.

    Photo: Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

Photo: Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

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Image of

The Nike ads featuring Colin Kaepernick have sparked strong feelings, both pro and con.

The Nike ads featuring Colin Kaepernick have sparked strong feelings, both pro and con.

Photo: Mark Lennihan / Associated Press

Marketing with a purpose works for Nike

Nike caused an uproar this month with its ad featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick that debuted just as the football season was about to begin. But the shoemaker’s stock is up and sales have been steady.

The furor seems to have largely died down and the company reported strong earnings Tuesday.

While purpose-driven marketing can be a land mine for some companies, others like Nike have found it a useful way to appeal to their core demographic and differentiate themselves in an increasingly polarized political landscape.

“I don’t think it was a big gamble. Historically, Nike has always done this so it was no shock,” said Antonio Williams, who teaches sports marketing at Indiana University. “They’re the king of emotional marketing so everything they do, they do it with emotion.”


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Nike Will Air Colin Kaepernick Ad During NFL Opener Nike’s commercial for its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign is set to air during the NFL regular season kickoff game. The voice and face of the ad is none other than former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaapernick. The ad features professional athletes like Serena Williams, LeBron James and more. It also features non-professional athletes who have beat the odds. The entire commercial is narrated by Kaepernick. The audience learns it is his voice during the last few seconds of the commercial. Although Kaepernick and the NFL are not on good terms, Nike’s contractual agreement will keep them in business with the league until 2028.

Media: Daily Press

For the quarter that ended Aug. 31, Nike’s net income rose 15 percent to $1.09 billion (67 cents per share), from $950 million (57 cents) in the prior-year quarter. Analysts expected 63 cents per share. Revenue rose 10 percent to $9.95 billion, edging past expectations of $9.93 billion.

The results don’t have anything to do with the Kaepernick ad, which came out shortly after the quarter ended. Instead, the quarter benefited from the FIFA World Cup of soccer that showcased many players and teams wearing its clothing and shoes, as well as the “athleisure” trend that continues to be strong.

But Nike has long boosted its global brand with edgy visual ads. On Monday, it celebrated another controversial athlete, Tiger Woods, who Nike stuck by during a 2009 sex scandal. Its latest campaign is a two-image Instagram ad celebrating Woods’s first PGA Tour win in five years. The first image shows his back, with the words, “He’s done.” But a swipe through to the second image shows the front of him giving a fist pump and the words “it again.”

The Kaepernick campaign included a print ad that featured a close-up of his face and the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” as well as a TV ad that featured many Nike athletes and a voice-over by Kaepernick in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline. Kaepernick was the first NFL athlete to take a knee in protest during the national anthem.

People were divided over the ads. Some burned their Nike socks and threatened boycotts while others saluted the company’s message. Overall, revenue hasn’t been dampened and the boycotts seem to have fizzled out.

In a call with analysts, Nike CEO Mark Parker said the campaign has inspired “record engagement with the brand,” and an rise in traffic and engagement “socially and commercially,” although he did not give specifics.

He said Nike marketing always tries to “connect and engage in a way that is relevant and inspiring to the consumers we’re here to serve.”

Taking a political or social stand is anathema to most brands, who want to appeal to the broadest amount of people possible in order to get them to part with their dollars. They don’t always work out. Etsy, the craft-centric e-commerce company, rose to prominence as a B Corp., a type of for-profit company that has been certified to meet social sustainability and environmental performance standards. But once Etsy went public, its board voted to give up that status to maintain its corporate structure.

In another case, an 84 Lumber Super Bowl ad in 2017 that tried to tackle immigration came across as overly complicated and tone deaf. Similarly, a 2017 Airbnb Super Bowl ad that aimed to celebrate diversity ended up inadvertently echoing Airbnb’s own problem with combatting discrimination by some hosts.

But if it fits with the brand, a social stance can work. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia has had success taking a stand on environmental issues because that resonates with its main customers: buyers of high-end outdoor clothing gear. And as opposition swelled against the Trump administration policy to separate migrant families, American Airlines and United Airlines, as well as other carriers, issued statements that said they did not want to use their flights to carry migrant children to temporary shelters.

Nike “hit it out of the park with the Kaepernick ad,” said Bob Phibbs, CEO of New York consultancy the Retail Doctor. “This ad is completely in line with who Nike is and what they stand for. That authenticity resonated and will continue to resonate with their customers.”

Mae Anderson is an Associated Press writer.

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