Is Nike’s Kaepernick Ad Brilliant Or Reckless? Q&A With Celebrity Branding Expert Jeetendr Sehdev
Nike just launched what may well be the most talked-about ad since Apple’s 1984 Superbowl spot. Nike’s new campaign, which features controversial NFL star Colin Kaepernick, instantly became the subject of countless headlines, tweets, glowing accolades and irate rants.
While it’s become more common of late for brands to engage in the broader social/political topics of the day, the Nike campaign stands out for its boldness. Major mainstream brands tend to avoid taking polarizing positions on highly controversial issues. But Nike has taken a stand on a nationally divisive issue by showcasing Kaepernick, the lightning rod of the emotional debate on the issue of players kneeling during the national anthem.
Was this a brilliant stroke of branding, or a reckless blunder into politics? There’s no doubt that Nike is feeling short-term pain, with a 3% dip in its stock price and a fierce backlash on social media. What’s not clear is whether the potential longer-term brand benefits will outweigh a likely hit to short-term results.
The tagline of the Kaepernick ad reads, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The line seems to take inspiration from a principle espoused by Jeetendr Sehdev, a pioneer in the arena of celebrity branding, media personality and author of the New York Timesbestselling book, The Kim Kardashian Principle. In his book, Sehdev proposes new principles of branding that companies need to embrace to connect with younger consumers who value transparency, authenticity and flaws rather than perfection, poise and correctness. In his keynote speeches to marketers around the world, Jeetendr talks about the core tenet of The Kim Kardashian Principle, “Sacrifice everything if you believe in something”—strikingly similar to Nike’s tagline.
To explore the likely impacts of Nike’s campaign, I spoke to the man himself, Jeetendr Sehdev.
Peter Horst: To start with, the Nike team have clearly read your book, where Rule #4 states, “Sacrifice everything if you believe in something”—strikingly similar to their new tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Jeetendr Sehdev: I’m flattered… What can I say? Nike is just one of thousands of organizations worldwide applying the lessons from The Kim Kardashian Principle. That was my exact vision for the book – to not only empower world leaders to think differently about building brands but also to actually change the culture. It just happens that Nike applied the principle in a very obvious way.
Horst: In these highly polarized times, it’s not often that a major global brand like Nike takes on such a controversial point of view. Is this reckless? A model for others to follow?
Sehdev: I don’t think iconic brands expressing a legitimate point of view on world issues is reckless – I think it’s very necessary. In fact, I don’t remember the last time Nike has been as culturally relevant as it is now.
Horst: We’ve seen the predictable backlash to the campaign, with #BoycottNike, shoe burning, furious posts and the like. How do you see the net balance of short-term pain vs. long-term brand benefit for Nike?
Sehdev: As I’ve been saying for quite a while now, hate today is a status symbol. If you’re not being hated you’re not in the game.
You really can’t expect everyone to love your opinion, but the main thing is that you have one. Brands need to express themselves and their worldviews more than ever before – for obvious reasons. It’s definitely riskier for organizations to pretend they don’t have a point of view because no one’s going to believe them. Sure, every action has a reaction but in the long run, Nike will emerge stronger, with greater brand immunity and more fanatics than fans. And fanatics are where it’s at for brands today.
Horst: What do you think distinguishes Nike’s campaign from other brands that made less successful forays into the social/political arena—like, for instance, the disastrous Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad?
Sehdev: When the Pepsi Kendal Jenner ad came out everyone was asking me what went wrong. The short answer was that Pepsi was attempting to jump on a cultural conversation that a can of soda just couldn’t own. As a result, the campaign was ridiculed. It wasn’t Kendall Jenner’s fault by any means. But nobody’s ridiculing the Nike and Colin Kaepernick campaign. Nike can own this point of view and conversation. It exudes integrity regardless of whether people agree or disagree with the brand’s point of view.
Horst: The Nike campaign is an interesting one because it’s really the story of two brands: Kaepernick’s and Nike’s. They both took a risk by taking a stand. And Kaepernick is perhaps now seeing the longer-term benefits of staking out a strong, albeit controversial, point of view.
Sehdev: Exactly. Nike and Kaepernick are fearless partners in crime here. That’s what gives the campaign its integrity.
Horst: CMOs often ask, “Does every brand need a strong POV on political issues? Shouldn’t some stick to their knitting and stay out of it?”
Sehdev: Any CMO asking if they need to have a political opinion in this highly politicized environment is probably ready to pass the baton. Over 60% of younger audiences want to connect with organizations on a values level. They know you have a political opinion on the world and they want to hear it. You’re probably better off playing a deadly game of Russian roulette then pretending you don’t.
Horst: What do you predict will be the effect of Nike’s campaign on the Kaepernick brand? Is this part of an overall renaissance for him?
Sehdev: You know, when people started out asking me what my future predictions were about celebrities and brands years ago, I would often answer that I didn’t have a crystal ball. Now, I actually think I do. Nike is going to emerge even stronger and Kaepernick’s brand just got re-injected into the culture – big time.
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