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Controversy in Marketing: A Lesson by Nike - Acumen Connections

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_empty_space height=”12px”][vc_custom_heading text=”“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”” font_container=”tag:h4|text_align:left|color:%23666666″ use_theme_fonts=”yes”][vc_empty_space height=”12px”][vc_column_text]On September 3rd, for the 30th anniversary of their “Just Do It” campaign, Nike inspired controversy with their latest advertisements. Sticking with their 2011 endorsement of the football player, Colin Kaepernick’s face adorns the Nike ads in a daring marketing move by the multinational athleticwear company.

Kaepernick is a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who famously started the national anthem protests in 2016. By “taking a knee” during the anthem as an outcry against racial injustice and police brutality, Kaepernick caused unrest throughout the nation with his silent protest. The backlash was so severe that even President Donald Trump felt the need to weigh in.

Nike is no stranger to controversy, however, so their decision to use Kaepernick as a spokesperson for the “Just Do It” campaign is not a surprise to many. In the past, Nike has also released ads for HIV awareness and ads against inequality and discrimination, just to name a few. The motive behind the company’s tendency to place themselves at the forefront of public disputes? Publicity. And Nike isn’t the only business to make that leap. Other examples include:
• Airbnb’s #weaccept advertisement – a movement for human rights
Starbucks’ red cups – an effort by the coffee giant to be more inclusive of religion
Diesel’s controversial campaigns from throughout the 1900’s – which stood up against racism and homophobia
• The famous “We Can Do It!” ad from the 1940’s – a campaign against gender inequality
• Dove’s Real Beauty campaign from 2004 – an attempt to challenge the standards of the beauty industry

This tactic, although precarious and unpredictable, has been a marketing strategy for decades – and all these businesses have one common goal in their efforts: to be put in the spotlight. As research suggests, this seems to be working for them.

Back to our example of Nike: after the release of the Kaepernick ads, Nike’s social media saw an influx of likes and follows, and sales went up by 31% (in comparison to the same period from this time last year). As if that wasn’t enough, stocks of the company jumped to $83.90 a share, beating Nike’s previous record. Even though the company’s reputation took a hit immediately after the release of the ads, the stocks for the company soon rose again, proving that the campaign has had a positive effect.

Despite playing a dangerous game, Nike and these other businesses have a point to make with their usage of social justice issues for their advertisements, and, for companies with such a large brand and following, they can afford to make that point. By choosing such controversial subjects to promote, these businesses are forcing their brands out in the open for all to see. Everyone is talking about them, from news sites to consumers to other businesses, and even if the talking isn’t always positive, the companies are still getting attention. With their goal achieved, they can sit back and watch sales climb and the fire spread – with the name of their brand spreading with it.

A marketing ploy so hazardous is not the solution for every company, but it is a good base model to follow. Pushing boundaries and going outside of the box is a way for businesses to stand out and get their name in conversation. As proven by Nike’s spike in sales and shares, taking risks can be beneficial in ways that playing it safe just can’t accomplish. However, it should be said that every move made from a marketing standpoint should be calculated and backed up by facts and reasoning. You don’t want to threaten the credibility or future of your business – you want to encourage consumers to choose you or spread the word about you.

An article by Forbes states: “The stories we remember though, catch our attention because their subjects provoke controversy and deliberately violate our expectations.” As the article suggests, controversial marketing is designed to impact your audience, and you should expect some of that impact to be negative. However, the word of controversy travels fast and far, meaning in theory that your audience should be wider than usual. This gives you the perfect opportunity to promote your brand and gain revenue.


You might have heard the quote “all publicity is good publicity.” This is certainly a standard that businesses seem to follow, as companies consistently take a gamble by inserting their name in hotly controversial topics. It’s a surefire way to get their brand spread via word of mouth and, hopefully, an increase in profit.
[Photo by Nike]

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