How Nike Made a Statement and Became More Than Simply a Product or Sponsor

Their commitment to their values solidified their status as a brand

As a professor of advertising who teaches courses on branding, I often find myself in an awkward position. I am often espousing an approach to branding that few brands ever live up to. As we all know, one of the main goals of branding is for consumers to attain value from those brands based on their emotional connections to them. Brands succeed best when consumers think of them as living, breathing entities and not just products.

The deceit of brands works at its best when the brand stands for something more than its functional benefit, when it has human characteristics that consumers can admire and even aspire to. In short, the best brands, like the best people, have a set of clear and consistent values. As Apple—another stalwart brand—reminded us in their epochal “Think Different” ad, “You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.”

All this week and on NBC’s Thursday Night Football Nike is making an emphatic statement about its values, about its worth as a brand versus a product.

Nike has said more about female empowerment with its latest Serena Williams ad and more about diversity with its Kaepernick ad than all of these other brands put together.

I once worked with a finance director who said, “A principle is only a principle if it costs you money.” Nike is putting its beliefs where its pocketbook is. Some people on the other side of the NFL protest issue are already burning their Nike clothes. They won’t be back as customers any time soon. Nike supplies the gameday apparel for all 32 NFL franchises. No one wants this issue to go away more than the NFL. There is real economic risk to the brand with this approach.

But as great brands know, the long-term reward of standing up for your beliefs usually dwarfs short-term economic hits. It is a smart investment. Nike is smart enough to know that the backbone of its image is its unique relationship with top athletes. But Nike is not so special to them anymore. Athletes don’t necessarily need to be associated with Nike’s once-impregnable power as a brand. For millennial athletes, Nike is a great brand, but so is Adidas or Under Armour. Roger Federer is now sporting Uniqlo clothing at the U.S. Open. Lonzo Ball just skipped all the brands and created his own.

By standing with Kaepernick, Nike is saying to athletes, “We are more than a sponsor—we have your backs. We support what you believe in.” In other words, Nike is willing to act on its values, which are the same as the values of its athletes.

A quote from Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vp of brand for North America is telling: “We wanted to energize its meaning and introduce ‘Just Do It’ to a new generation of athletes.”

Mission accomplished.

Nike’s move this week is even more salient when we compare it to what most other big brands are doing. The world is rife with brands doing cloying and #MeToo messages about issues like diversity and women’s empowerment. These are important issues, and I don’t want to relegate them in any way. But most of these ads are clearly driven by consumer research. They come from brands trying to prove they “get it.” Unfortunately, with so many “getting it” at the same time and executing it the exact same way, no one stands out.

Nike has said more about female empowerment with its latest Serena Williams ad and more about diversity with its Kaepernick ad than all of these other brands put together. Nike is sincere. The ads are directly related to what Nike is all about. Most of all, they are not just executions; they are stories with deep and meaningful plots put together by a brand that really does get it.

I would like to have been a fly on the wall in Nike’s boardroom over the past few weeks. I am sure there were some very heated arguments about whether this approach was too risky. I would like to think that after hours of deliberation, someone said, “Let’s just do what we believe in.”