Colin Kaepernick and Nike Want You to Believe in Something

Earlier this week former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick tweeted a black and white pic of his face along with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

I was so happy when I realized it was Nike’s 30th anniversary campaign announcement. We’re talking immediate ear-to-ear grin. It was like, yes! Exclamation point. Thank you, Nike. Bring my man back from the dead.

It’s horrible enough that Kaepernick was blackballed from playing a game that he was so good at for reasons that I think are eternally unfair. It was even worse to think that his notoriety was such that he could no longer make money, especially given how serious he is about giving large quantities of cash away for charitable causes.

Until Nike, I hadn’t heard of any company brave enough to use him for an endorsement or any other type of gig. I kept waiting for someone to turn his fine self into a model or for him to start public speaking. But when nothing happened, I had to accept that either he’s actively rebuffing those kinds of opportunities in hopes of resurrecting his football career, or no company had the stones to attach themselves to a public martyr for racial injustice.

I get it. I totally get it. Kaepernick made kneeling into a worldwide statement. One so rich and powerful the NFL made actual policies to curb its players ability to make this statement for themselves. It would have to be a brave, extremely special company, or a niche one with a specific audience and nothing to lose by supporting an international movement.

Still, while many people share my joy in Kaepernick’s latest triumph, everyone didn’t respond the way I did. People were literally burning shoes, and a #BoycottNike hashtag popped up faster than a weed after a hard rain. But those responses, while extreme and not at all surprising, seemed muted, even boring. Or, as The Atlantic said, “spectacle supersedes substance.”

Atlantic writer Hannah Giorgis did a fabulous job of pointing out that while many, like me, think Nike made a grand gesture in favor of racial justice, the company’s latest campaign featuring Kaepernick was also a fabulous business move. She wrote that Nike has already enjoyed some $43M in publicity, much of it positive, from what is essentially a free announcement.

Further, Giorgis pointed out that, “Nike has long embraced controversial athletesas part of its appeal to a youthful customer base; Kaepernick’s involvement is no aberration.” And with numbers like $43M in publicity as a foundation, few could deny that Nike’s advertising and marketing savvy, it’s ability to capture attention and generate conversation, is on point.

The announcement made me want to support the company, to actually buy its products just because it aligned itself with this man who I believe in so strongly. I wasn’t the only one who tweeted that sentiment either, and I’d wager many of the people who feel as I do are similar to me in that, we don’t regularly buy sports apparel or gym shoes – certainly not logo’d sports apparel. As far as elevating a brand and creating a wave of support and very specific buying behavior, I’d say this campaign is an unqualified success – and it just started. Bloomberg News reported that online orders for Nike shoes and apparel rose 27 percent in the four day period following Kaepernick’s announcement.

Even better, the concept is super simple and very easily executed, so the company didn’t have to do much to get that return on investment. Nike capitalized on an extremely famous face. Then it attached its equally famous slogan, “Just do it,” to a complementary idea. But it’s an idea that has depth and meaning that go far beyond sports, teamwork, athleticism or even health and wellness. The company is exhorting the world to: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Because of Kaepernick’s sacrifice, because of the power and controversy that followed, he will forever mean something deeply personal to people of color – and not just people of color living in America either. And as a global company, Nike knows this. It’s why an ad so simple in design has so much power.

This is not just an ad, just as Kaepernick is not just an activist. This is a statement. He is a statement. Colin K started a movement, and by being the first major retailer to attach itself to him and to this movement, Nike has turned its products into personal, authentic and tangible pieces of triumph, courage, and solidarity in the face of systemic adversity, pain and suffering. That’s something.

So, shout out to Nike for its new campaign and to Colin K for standing firm in his beliefs and taking a hit for our people. A hit that had to hurt far far worse than any injury he could have sustained on the football field. I look forward to watching the campaign unfold, and to other organizations echoing Nike’s stance in adopting public figures with a controversial, even dangerous background.

It gives one hope that standing for something unpopular doesn’t have to mean the end of a career. Or, if it does, it can signal the start of a new one.

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