While Nike’s seen significant stock gains since their decision to make Colin Kaepernick the face of their 30th anniversary ad campaign, including a two-minute ad narrated by Kaepernick that’s been shown on NFL broadcasts, it’s now come out that the company’s relationship with Kaepernick almost turned out very differently. Julie Creswell, Kevin Draper and Sapna Maheshwari of The New York Times reported Wednesday that Nike was actually set to cut ties with Kaepernick before a key communications executive intervened:
Knowing the 49ers were planning to cut him, Kaepernick opted out of his contract in the spring of 2017. When no other team signed him, Nike’s top marketing officials realized they had no idea what to do with him: He didn’t have a team, so they couldn’t put his name on any team gear.
Baffled, top executives in Nike’s sports marketing group decided to end the company’s contract with him, according to a former employee who requested anonymity because of a nondisclosure agreement.
Then Nigel Powell, the longtime head of communications for Nike, learned of the decision and “went ballistic,” the former employee said.
Powell argued that Nike would face backlash from the media and consumers if it was seen as siding with the N.F.L. rather than Kaepernick. And Nike, along with most apparel companies, is desperate to attract urban youth who increasingly look up to Kaepernick; the largely white, older N.F.L. fans angry at the league over the protests are not a priority for those companies, analysts say.
In the end, Powell’s side of that argument won out. But it didn’t immediately lead to Kapernick having any involvement in Nike campaigns; he was kept on their roster, but didn’t have a featured product and wasn’t featured in ads. And as per the Times‘ reporting, Kaepernick’s lawyers even questioned if Nike was fulfilling its obligations to him at one point. That led to an eventual June meeting in New York where Nike execs emerged thinking Kaepernick could play a role for them, and that was something encouraged by long-time Nike ad agency Wieden+Kennedy (also the long-time ESPN ad agency that left them for Fox Sports 1 in early 2017). In September, a designer at that firm posted on a personal website that W+K had “pushed to use Colin Kaepernick as the face of the 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign,” and that “Nike agreed to it. We made it. Colin posted it. People lost it.”
In retrospect, lining up with Kaepernick appears to have worked out pretty well for Nike. Yes, they’re a NFL sponsor, but their deal (which has been there since 2012) will only see them producing on-field products after 2020, not clothing sold to fans. And the NFL’s a small portion of their overall global business, and as noted by the Times, many of the people complaining about Kaepernick aren’t exactly in Nike’s target demographics.
Also, Nike’s stock has done quite well since this. There’s obviously more to stock movement than one ad, but it’s safe to say that this hasn’t been a significant downside for them to this point. And this also appears to have minimized some of the negative publicity about them on other fronts, from the August lawsuit claiming pay inequity and gender discrimination to reports about conditions for overseas workers involved with their products. So the move to align with Kaepernick seems like one that’s paid off so far. It’s amazing that it almost didn’t happen.