On Nike, Kaepernick and Brand Values

I completed a questionnaire last week in which I was asked if there was a particular piece of copy that I wish I’d written. For the record, there are many, but the first thing that came to mind was Nike’s slogan, ‘Just Do It’, coined by Dan Wieden, founder of Wieden+Kennedy. Not only is this slogan simple, arresting and memorable, it’s ultimately inspirational life advice that can be applied to almost anything. In just three words, it manages to harness both a universal desire and a personal quest to achieve greatness. Rarely has a brand’s slogan entered our collective consciousness in quite the same way. As the campaign celebrates its 30th anniversary, more than one generation has grown up with those motivational words embroidered on their clothes, shoes and bags, but now I’m wondering if that iconic phrase means the same as it did when I was a kid, and more importantly, does it really mean anything at all?

Take its first TV spot in 1988 in which we see an 80-year-old man who’s seemingly willing to overcome any obstacle to run 17 miles every day. ‘Just Do It’ claimed that you could do anything you set your mind to. Fast forward to today and there can be no denying that Nike’s own ambitions have climbed significantly since that first ad, taking us on a journey from personal inspiration to political activism. It has now evolved to the point where the brand is using its power to take a moral stance on various wide-ranging issues. Their latest iteration is yet another example of their slogan’s versatility. On top of a stark black and white photo of Colin Kaepernick’s face are the words, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’ Then underneath, at the very bottom, we see the Swoosh, and of course, ‘Just Do It’. For those who don’t know, Colin Kaepernick was the first American football player to kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice and police brutality. In doing so, he divided a nation, riled his President and has since been unable to get a new NFL contract.

Kaepernick is, without doubt, a massively controversial figure: hero to many, nemesis to virtually everyone else. And that’s why Nike’s partnership with him is huge. Where most other brands happily sit on the fence or ignore these issues altogether, Nike have emphatically nailed their colours to the mast, effectively endorsing everything Kaepernick stands for while aligning their brand values with his. ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything’, is such a big statement I can only assume that Nike are also referring to themselves. As the current supplier of NFL jerseys with a politically divided consumer base, their support of Kaepernick appears to come with a hell of a lot of risk, albeit a calculated one. Already we’re seeing irate Americans burning their shoes in the street and cutting the logos off their socks. The petulant backlash is in full swing and I’m curious as to whether Nike fully anticipated it, or perhaps more cynically, if they wanted it.

Longterm, I’m certain that the brand will benefit from its associations with Kaepernick and its many other forays into moral and political debates. Everyone has something to gain from being on the right side of history. But while we salute their perceived bravery, we’re reminded that Nike still use non-unionised sweatshop labour to produce their wares. And that leaves me wondering if it’s remotely possible for a brand to have genuine values over and above the manufacturing of its products or the quality of its services, especially when everyone knows that its ultimate aim is profit. Surely, even the most basic of brand values should adequately recognise the contribution of its workers before gallantly telling the rest of the world what to believe in. Stewart Lee’s musings (below) on the brand values of Carphone Warehouse illustrate this point perfectly.

It’s obvious that in the current climate, the ‘Just Do It’ campaign means far more to today’s young generation than it did to mine. But in order to be viewed as anything other than opportunistic PR moguls, Nike need to carefully examine their operations and heed their own advice. Then, and only then, will their moralising actually mean anything.