Nike’s Kaepernick ad: provocative PR, not purpose-led branding

Nike’s new Colin Kaepernick advert* has been effective at provoking the desired political controversy and polarised opinion: 30% of US consumers feel more positive about Nike after seeing the ad, but 39% feel more negative, according to brandgym research over the weekend. Nike is attempting to show it retains an ‘edge’, especially for younger consumers, on the 30th anniversary of ‘Just Do It’.

However, I disagree with most marketing commentators who claim this is a great example of ‘purpose-led branding’. I actually suggest that the ad strays AWAY from Nike’s brand purpose, “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete,” for reasons I explain below.

*In case you missed it, the ad features American football player Colin Kaepernick with the text, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’. He achieved fame not for footballing feats, but for kneeling during the pre-match playing of the national anthem in 2016, in protest against racial injustice in the USA. He opted out of his contract with the San Franciso 49ers to become a free agent after the 2016 season and has not played since. He is claiming in a court case that the NFL (National Football League) owners have colluded to not hire him.

1. Purpose should be rooted in your PRODUCT

Brand purpose should be rooted in your PRODUCT.


First, this makes your purpose authentic and credible, critical for the brand-savvy younger consumers Nike is targetting.

Second, it keeps you real and reminds you that the purpose of purpose, as with all marketing, is to help you ‘SMS’: sell more stuff.

Brands can have a purpose with a political edge, but this works best with a direct link to the product.

Take Ben & Jerry’s. As part of its long-standing social mission, the brand campaigns on a whole range of issues relating to food ethics including non-GMO, cage-free hens and animal wellbeing. But importantly, it ‘bakes’ these beliefs into the product by using ‘values-based sourcing’.

With the Kaepernick ad, Nike is no longer celebrating sporting performance. In fact, Nike is promoting a celebrity who is famous for NOT playing sport.

Nike is claiming to stand alongside Kaepernick in his commendable stance against racial injustice. But this is not baked into the product, at least for now.

To be truly purpose-led, I suggest Nike has two choices:

  • stick to what made it famous: bringing inspiration and innovation to athletes to help them perform better (and look cool), OR
  • broaden the definition/execution of its purpose to include inspiring and supporting sports-related political activism, but then bake this into its products a la Ben & Jerry’s. For example, launch a Kaepernick range of sports wear where all the profits are donated to supporting campaigns against racial inequality. However, if the focus moves from sports performance to include sports-related politics, this could dilute the brand

2. Purpose is about action, not just words

Brand purpose has power when it is translated into actions, not just words. 

Patagonia’s purpose in anchored on the idea of ‘do no harm,’ for example. It is brought to life through big, bold initiatives like the Common Threads program. This encourages the repair, recycling and resale of garments via eBay. The brand even ran a full page ad saying: ‘Don’t buy this jacket unless you really need it.’ Here is a brand prepared to sacrifice short-term profit in the pursuit of a purpose with potential long term brand, business and societal benefits

In contrast, Nike’s Kaepernick ad is a headline-grabbing piece of communication. But where’s the action to back it up and show that Nike, in the words of its ad, is ready to ‘sacrifice everything’ for its beliefs?

Kaepernick claims the NFL are preventing him from playing as a result of his protest. So, is Nike ready to cancel the contract it signed in March 2018 to provide kit to all 32 NFL teams? Or protest against the lack of non-white NFL owners? I don’t think so.

3. What about the bottom line?

Nike’s Kaepernick ad is more to do with provoking political controversy than truly living out the brand purpose. But what will it do for the bottom line? 

My prediction is that the long term effect will be roughly neutral. 

Some people like that Nike is promoting an athlete taking a stance on an important issue. Others are properly pissed off, and have gone as far as burning their Nike gear.

Results from our own brandgym survey run over the weekend show that the ad has a net negative effect on brand sentiment for US consumers as whole (-9 % pts). Nike’s key target of 18-34 people who buy more shoes are slightly positive (+11 % pts), whereas people 35+ are negative (-18 % pts). Weight the scores by source of revenue, not population, and I reckon the net effect would be roughly neutral. And I guess Nike would be happy with this polarisation.

[Apologies to email subscribers if graph is blurred. Working with Feedblitz to try and solve!]

The claimed publicity generated ($43 million) is also polarised: positive =43%; negative = 32%; neutral = 25% (1). I suggest the slight positive net result reflects marketing commentators being more seduced by the Kaepernick ad than your average US consumer.

4. Nike IS living its sports-focused purpose elsewhere

The politically charged Kaepernick ad has grabbed the headlines, but is more about PRovocation than purpose, for now at least.

However, if you dig deeper, you see that Nike IS actually living out its purpose. The Kaepernick ad is a polarising ‘PR cherry’ on the top of ‘a purpose-led cake’.

First, the brand has invested over decades in innovation to help athletes perform (and look cool), such as the Air Jordan shoe launch in 1984. NBA commissioner David Stern banned the shoes, saying that they broke the NBA dress code. Nike appealed his decision, claiming that the ban was based on a belief that felt the product design gave Michael Jordan an unfair playing advantage (2). This was about bringing “inspiration and innovation to every athlete,” as was the more recent campaign about the ban of Serena William’s ‘catsuit’,

In recent years the brand has lived out its purpose by going beyond products to develop software and apps to provide inspiration for athletes.

The brand also has an active social program, ‘Made to Play’, which addresses the issues of child inactivity and obesity, and aims to get 16 million kids more active. The ambition of the program, rooted in the brand’s purpose, is to ‘get kids moving to unleash their full potential’.

Finally, the brand provides inspiration to achieve more through its communication and activation. The film of the new campaign does this well, urging people to ‘dream crazy’, and featuring inspiring athletes who have overcome adversity to achieve success.


In conclusion, if you believe in the power of purpose for your brand, ignore Nike’s Kaepernick ad, unless you want to  PRovoke controversy and polarise opinion.

Follow instead the example of brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, and the 99% of stuff Nike does that is focused on sporting performance and achievement.

Lead with actions, not words. 

And bake the purpose into your products and services, not just your ads.

To explore BRAND PURPOSE in depth we offer a short, on-demand course on our brandgym Academy platform here. The course is only £95+VAT and is fully refunded if you go on to take the full brandgym Mastering Brand Growth program where we explore a comprehensive and practical 8-step program for creating brand strategy to inspire business growth.

To get our latest research paper Making Purpose Pay, just pop your email in the form.

And for more on brand purpose, check out this other post on the Airbnb case study.