The right time to take a knee

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In last two months, much has been written, tweeted, discussed and talked about the Nike’s latest campaign launched in September of this year. The issue being debated was not the latest sneaker model, or a famous Adidas star defecting to the camp of its eternal rival, Nike. The big issue was Colin Kaepernick, the main character in this recent campaign.

For those not up on the latest news, Colin Kaepernick is an American football player who achieved international fame when he kneeled during the national anthem, which is played at the beginning of every NFL game. He did this as an act of protest against brutal police shootings of African American men, which was an important issue in the USA at the time. At first, he was supported by a few of his fellow players, but soon this form of resistance gained traction beyond the playing field, and became a true small-scale resistance movement. Its focus expanded to encompass social inequalities and a rising tide of racism. The campaign was extremely anti-Trump, and this was further fueled by President Trump himself due to his strong attacks on Kaepernick and those who supported him. Even the NFL didn’t take Kaepernick’s side, claiming that politics didn’t belong in sports.

One of the consequences of all this was the decision of Kaepernick’s team, the San Francisco 49ers, not to renew his contract. Knowing this, Colin Kaepernick left the team on his own and became a free agent, but no NFL team has been willing to take him. However, he has signed on with a publisher to write a book about the controversy, and also made a deal to take part in a new TV sitcom.

And then, the Nike campaign happened. I won’t speculate now about how or why Nike decided to do this ad campaign with Kaepernick. Instead, I’ll deal with the ramifications of the decision.

The campaign launched on September 3, just before the start of the new NFL season, when Colin Kaepernick tweeted a now widely-recognizable black-and-white image of a close-up of his face with the caption “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” to his 6 million followers on social media. It was followed by a video featuring a plethora of famous and not-so-famous athletes who Nike sponsors and an appropriately motivational speech in the background read by Kaepernick himself. He appears at the end of the video saying, “Do not ask if your dreams are crazy, ask if they’re crazy enough’” The video finishes with the legendary slogan “Just Do It” and the Nike logo.

The reaction was instantaneous. In less than a month, the video had garnered over 80 million views on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Social networks lit up over a debate about one question—was this really the place for Kaepernick? On one side of the debate were those who supported this kind of brand-driven video activism, claiming that the message of the need to fight for social justice and against racism would reach a wider audience. On the other side there were those who claimed Kaepernick had sold out and betrayed those who supported him, since they believed he was an honest fighter for what was right, and in the end he had sold his fifteen minutes of fame to a global company for lots of money. A counter-protest under the slogan “Just Burn it” even appeared on social media with videos of people burning Nike sneakers and jerseys. Of course, President Trump himself jumped into the fray, smugly tweeting that Nike was paying a high price for taking on someone like this for its campaign.

The result? After a short fall in Nike’s stock price on the New York Stock Exchange, by the end of September, the stock was trading at a historic $85 a share, and Nike sales skyrocketed. From this standpoint, the campaign exceeded expectations, but it remains to be seen how long this can continue.

So, what is the true moral of this story? This Nike campaign is more proof of the media power everyone with a smartphone in their pocket has. According to Apex Marketing, in its first three days alone, the generated media exposure was valued at $163 million on social media alone, even before the TV version of the ad was aired. How did this happen? The answer lies in the fact that the issue Nike built this campaign on is controversial and simply requires arguments for and against, which leads to a division into “us” and “them.” And this was the motive behind the story spreading so quickly, because anyone who shared the story knew it would cause this kind of attention and stand out from the all the piles of other content.

Up until now, traditional branding strategies’ main goal was to convince as many people as possible that their product was superior, which is the main motive behind a decision to purchase something. This is why all products have been advertised as being good for everyone. From this perspective, it seems illogical that Nike’s strategy is aimed at provoking divided opinions, which then discourages some of the potential buyers from buying “our” product. But this is true only at first glance, because all those who get hooked by this socially sensitive topic, whether they are for or against, will share a story like this, thus serving as a media channel through which a brand and product will also be communicated. Basically, this is about targeting a broad consumer group, but in a way that has been adapted to today’s media environment. In an environment with a limited number of media outlets, the target group was defined by selecting certain media and their advertising price. In an environment with an unlimited number of media channels, the target group is defined by choosing an issue that is then circulated. And in order for a topic to circulate as quickly and easily as possible through the media, it must be provocative and sensitive enough to produce emotional reactions. In other words, a heated debate must be provoked.

Does this mean that the current social issues discussed in public will increasingly be determined by companies that transform these issues into campaigns to sell their products, promote their brands and increase sales and profit? If politics today are a larger part of the entertainment industry, where there are more and more professional and amateur actors, why wouldn’t business occupy political space by turning it into its own consumer market? Think about that for a minute the next time you go out to buy a pair of sneakers.

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