Image credit: Robert Alexander / Getty Images

On September 5th, 2018, a billboard appeared atop Nike’s San Francisco office. A close-up black-and-white picture of a man’s face was overlaid with a simple quote: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” 

The face was Colin Kaepernick’s, one of the most polarizing figures in America at the time and recipient of a new endorsement deal from the athletic apparel giant. Kaepernick was an NFL quarterback who many believe was essentially “blackballed” from the league after protesting racial injustice in 2016. 

Nike chose to stand behind Kapernick despite the fact that he was technically no longer an active professional athlete and despite the fact that they were rekindling heated debates that had finally started to wane. The move was a bold one, but it paid off.

A day after the billboard went up, and just minutes before the inaugural game of the 2018-19 NFL season, the accompanying commercial aired. Narrated by Kaepernick, the “Dream Crazy” video offers glimpses into the barriers faced by various athletes, from elite figures born into tough conditions like Serena Williams to a 10-year-old paraplegic wrestler.

Created with longtime marketing partner Wieden+Kennedy, Nike’s advertising campaign is considered to be the most controversial and influential of 2018. Here, I consider the strategies that made “Dream Crazy” a success and offer four ways that nonprofits can utilize similar strategies in their own marketing campaigns:

1. Name Your “Brand Essence”

In the mid-1980s, Nike was struggling. Having long emphasized the quality of its shoes and apparel to attract customers, the company decided to try something different: focus on people, not products. The pivot worked and has been essential to its success ever since.

In No Logo, Naomi Klein explains the phenomenon Nike helped to start:

“The search for the true meaning of brands—or the ‘brand essence,’ as it is often called—gradually took the agencies away from individual products and their attributes and toward a psychological/anthropological examination of what brands mean to the culture and to people’s lives…This was seen to be of crucial importance, since corporations may manufacture products, but what consumers buy are brands.”

The lesson: Use internal brainstorming and public surveying to pinpoint your nonprofit’s personality or “brand essence.” Be sure that all marketing campaigns display and reinforce this essence.

2. Find Your Purpose

In 1992, Nike took their “brand essence” experiment a step further. Unprecedented at the time, they ran an advertisement with an explicit social justice message, in this case empowering female athletes. It was only the first of many similarly risky campaigns Nike would run over the years, effectively paving the way for countless other companies to do the same.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nike was ahead of the curve. While incredibly rare in 1992, a 2017 Sprout Social survey found that modern consumers are ready for—and indeed, demanding—brands to be purpose-driven. “Two-thirds of consumers (66%) say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues,” the survey found. 

Interestingly, this trend seems to be even truer for younger, up-and-coming consumers. Based on a 2018 poll from the Edelman firm, 69% of millennials (consumers between the ages of 18 and 35 years old) identify as belief-driven buyers.

Media expert Justin R. Ching explained the shift of consumer sentiment succinctly:

“Audiences are braver about their beliefs than ever before…We’re no longer in a place where the safe middle-of-the-aisle-approved narrative is good enough. Consumers want businesses to take a strong point of view and truly demonstrate they share the same values, especially if that means making a sacrifice.”

The lesson: Consider which, if any, social values your nonprofit can align itself with. Opt for values where alignment is a natural fit and thus more likely to be perceived as authentic. These values should be relevant to the nonprofit in one way or another, whether due to current events, geographic location, or issues faced by primary supporters.

3. Know Your People

Colin Kaepernick was actually sponsored by Nike since 2012, but the partnership was fairly typical. After his protests, the company was considering severing ties. that is, until veteran communications leader Nigel Powel caught wind of the plan. He “went ballistic,” warning that Nike would alienate a key demographic of “urban youth who increasingly look up to Kaepernick.”

Powel was onto something. Based on a study by NDP Group, about two-thirds of Nike’s customers are under 35 years old and are also more racially-diverse relative to the baby boomer population. 

To test these demographic trends before “Dream Crazy” was released, Nike held focus groups with customers, showing different versions of the commercial to different groups. As reported by ABX, “a 60-second version of the Kaepernick ad scored only an 88 with a general audience, significantly below the average score of 100. However, the bulk of the drop was from older consumers, while millennials and African-American and Hispanic men scored the ad much higher than the industry average…” 

After the advertisement’s release, Nike’s hypothesis was confirmed. A Quinnipac University study found that 49% of Americans approved Nike’s decision to include Colin Kaepernick in its advertising, versus 39% who disapproved. The study also found a significant age gap reflected in responses, as 67% of respondents between 18 and 34 years old approved of the Kaepernick advertisement, while only 39% of those over 65 years old felt the same way.

“It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it.” —Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike (from an interview with Stanford)

The lesson: Study the demographics of your nonprofit’s supporters. If this data is unavailable, use what information is available (along with educated inference) to develop what Hubspot calls ”buyer personas” (don’t let the term “buyer” scare you off; just substitute in “supporter”). Whether you come up with solid numbers or just brainstorming, either option will help your marketing efforts to be more targeted and effective.

4. Take Calculated Risks

Initially, it seemed that reactions to “Dream Crazy” were more negative than positive. Within hours of the campaign’s initial announcement, Nike’s stocks began to drop, falling by 3.2% by the end of the day. On Twitter, the hashtag #BoycottNike began trending, surfacing numerous videos of Nike products being burned and slashed.

News commentators, celebrities, and even the president of the United States expressed outrage. “I think as far as sending a message,” Trump said, “I think it’s a terrible message and a message that shouldn’t be sent.”

Yet, as quickly as Nike’s public image seemed to be crumbling, it began to soar. According to Jeff Beer’s reporting, the advertisement generated “$163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales” for the company. Compared to the previous year, Nike’s sales doubled.

Digital engagements also skyrocketed. As reported by Forbes, “Mentions of Nike-owned brands on social media surged during the Kaepernick ad controversy, peaking at over 450,000 mentions in a single day on Twitter alone…In fact, Nike is still getting over 50% more online chatter about its products today than it did prior to the Kaepernick campaign rollout.”

Given the initial outrage, what changed for Nike? At least part of the answer is the outrage itself: Supporters seemed to have mobilized more than they otherwise would have to counteract the backlash. Ultimately, Nike bet on the loyalty of its base outweighing the resistance of other customer segments. They won the bet.

The lesson: Identify “calculated risks” that could be experimented with in your nonprofit’s marketing campaigns. Start small: these risks should not significantly jeopardize your financial health (especially for smaller organizations). Nor should they have the potential to alienate any key segments of supporters. While not all risks will pay off, some will, and those positive instances can go a long way towards creating a reputation for boldness for your nonprofit.

Ready to get started?

If you are ready to design bold marketing campaigns for your nonprofit, Hoan Marketing can help! Since 2016, I have supported nonprofits with advertising strategy, content, and execution.

Serving Milwaukee, Wisconsin and beyond, Hoan offers full-spectrum digital marketing services, including web designsocial media, and email marketing.

To schedule your free 30-minute consultation, fill out the contact form or call me at (414) 909-0626‬.