Larry Smith

Nike just unveiled a new ad campaign to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its iconic “Just Do It” slogan. The company did so in headline-grabbing fashion, which has led to the controversy-du-jour. Nike chose quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick as the “face” of its new campaign. Immediately after that announcement, the internet nearly melted down with reactions from people who vehemently disagree with the decision. Many people posted videos of themselves burning their Nike shoes (including at least one person who was still wearing them). 

Intentionally destroying one’s Nike shoes raises an important point that most people likely miss: Nike is not a shoe company. Some view Nike as an apparel company, but even that expanded definition misses the mark. Nike is a brand. Brands transcend mere products. An analogy might be helpful. Nearly 30 years ago, former tennis star Andre Agassi tersely asserted the following in a commercial for Canon cameras: “Image is everything.” Agassi should know. He was famous as much for his untamed “hair” as he was for his exciting style of play. Of course, it turned out that Agassi was actually going bald! (I have often wondered whether he laughed or cried to himself when he uttered those famous words.) Agassi’s brand was not about tennis; it was about being a glamorous “rebel.”

Similarly, Nike’s brand has long been about athletic excellence and self-empowerment (inside and outside athletics). In contrast to another one of its legendary ad campaigns, “Bo Knows,” the “Just Do It” campaign now seeks to elevate social justice as a company virtue. (I don’t have space to go into the details, but it is instructive to examine the backgrounds of the people who are featured in the new campaign.) 

Of course, even as we laud Nike for its move to be “on the right side of history,” we should very clearly understand that the company’s first responsibility is to its shareholders, who demand long-term profitability. To that end, it is clear that Nike understands who constitutes its core market. Marketing firm Simmons Research found the following key factors regarding Nike’s U.S. customers: (1) Democrats are 14 percent more likely to buy Nike than the average American, while Republicans are 12 percent less likely; (2) African-Americans are 56 percent more likely to buy Nike than the national average, while whites are 14 percent less likely; (3) people ages 18-34 are 37 percent more likely than older Americans to buy Nike — and are more likely to support the “kneeling protest.”

Additionally, marketing firm Sprout Social found that 78 percent of self-described “liberals” believe that companies should “take a stand” on social issues, whereas only 52 percent of “conservatives” feel the same way. America’s changing demographics all but ensure that these trends will continue, if not accelerate. It is especially important to note that only 43 percent of Nike’s sales are in North America. Further, domestic sales are shrinking while international sales are growing. Thus, the uproar in the U.S. regarding Kaepernick does not “translate” overseas. (Perhaps Nike’s new slogan should be “Just Data It.”)

Finally, given that Nike’s fortunes have been built on the power of African-American superstars such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, there is a legitimate question regarding what our people should expect — even demand — from the company. Additionally, it should be noted that we (as individuals and institutions) can buy Nike stock in large amounts, which would give us a say in company decisions. 

To borrow from Cardi B., “We don’t play no more, we make money moves!”  

Larry Smith is managing director of Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence at Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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