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Just Use It: how Nike uses activism

Nike has caused a lot of controversy with a daring advertising campaign. ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’– it’s a message the sports brand would love to mirror on their own image. But Nike does not run any real risks at all. Nike celebrates the thirty-year jubilee of their successful ‘Just Do It’ marketing with a campaign that hasn’t been going unnoticed. The leading man of the new campaign is Colin Kaepernick, the first American football player who, in 2016, knelt in protest against racism and police brutality during the national anthem, fueling a national debate. A brave act, that came with a high price. It presented Kaepernick with both praise and criticism. Since the kneeling, however, no American football team has offered him a contract. The Nike campaign is now met with the same division.

The campaign text from Nike reads: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” and refers to the daring action of Kaepernick two years ago. Whoever looks at the fierce anti response, with Twitter campaign #justburnit front and center, sees that this text might as well be about Nike

Connection with young target group

But this myth (being that the brand’s taking a big risk with their campaign) is something Nike is especially creating itself, too. It is precisely the companies that do not speak out on socially engaged issues, that are at risk today. Why? Because these companies risk losing connection with the young target group. And that is exactly the target group that companies have to commit to in order to stay alive. Where the millennial is characterised by a need for authenticity and sustainability, the new generation of young people, referred to as GenZ and born after 1995, takes it to the next level: they are woke. This translates as follows: they are alert to racism, social inequality and injustice. GenZ is increasingly looking for companies where she can see her woke mentality reflected. She comes into action by making choices with her wallet. Activism 2.0. Brands are responding to this development en masse, using brand activism. Brand activism means brands addressing and finding solutions for social issues such as discrimination, stereotyping and climate change. But that is not as easy as it sounds. In their activist campaigns, many brands completely miss the mark. Think of Pepsi who used the Black Lives Matter movement for a feel-good cola advertisement that was immediately taken offline after much fuss. Rabobank also took a particularly awkward stance, and even won the Liegebeest election (Liar Liar election) with the ‘Growing a better world’ campaign.

Existing activism

Nike understands that, as a brand, you shouldn’t play the activist yourself, but facilitate already existing activism. The fact that Nike seems to hit the right note with this campaign is not only because this campaign is very strong, creatively and strategically. Nike gives a good example here because she understands that, as a brand, you shouldn’t play the activist yourself, but should rather facilitate already existing activism. Young people increasingly expect that brands create space and demand attention for oppression and inequality, without exploiting their struggle. This generation does not want to be spoken about, they want to be the speakers. And that is exactly what Nike is doing here: offering the oppressed a stage. No new stories or scripts need to be developed, because the real story has already been told. It was told 21 months ago, on the sports field, by Colin Kaepernick. Let us not forget who really lost everything. A player without a club now becomes a player with a worldwide voice at Nike. That is the honour the company deserves: using their budget and reach for a story that deserves attention. By not claiming the position of activists themselves, Nike also limits the risk of criticism of its own policy: within the organisation, there is a lot to be improved on in the socio-cultural field. That almost two years went by in finally paying attention to this story, suggests that the marketing calendar was a leading factor in this campaign - and that the urgency of the message came secondary. Let’s hope that, in the future, brands will use their marketing budget when a message deserves the most attention from a social point of view instead of when this brand happens to be celebrating an organisational anniversary.
Words by Nadine Ridder / Photo by Xavier Teo

This article was published in Dutch at Oneworld.nl and translated by Imme Visser

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