Millennials and Gen Z fashion themselves as being driven by their morals when purchasing goods and services. According to a survey by Deloitte, many “will not hesitate to lessen or end a relationship when they disagree with a company’s business practices, values, or political leanings.” Understandably, corporate America is falling over itself to flaunt its wokeness.
A branch of PR has emerged called “purpose marketing” where self-styled experts advise companies how to channel their “authentic” inner selves and attach themselves to causes that will “emotionally connect” with their customers or clients. Never mind the contradiction of companies using third parties to discover their authenticity. There’s some evidence that people fall for this stuff, so KKR touting its celebration of Gay Pride might make people forget its Barbarian past.
As Nike has painfully learned, there’s a potential downside getting into bed with activists, however worthy or noble their causes. The sports apparel company was forced to recall a commemorative July Fourth sneaker featuring a flag designed by Betsy Ross after its featured endorser Colin Kaepernick offered his unsolicited counsel the flag was offensive because of its ties to the slavery era. Some little-known extremist groups opposed to diversity feature the flag in their promotion of hatred.
Kaepernick’s argument opens a Pandora’s Box that positions him to be the endorsement gift that keep on giving. The former quarterback has Nike by the cojones, and if he chooses, he can squeeze so hard the company’s trademark swoosh will morph into a straight line. If one buys Kaepernick’s argument that the Betsy Ross flag is a symbol of America’s slavery past, then the swoosh should be regarded as a symbol of what some prominent black athletes have called a more modern form of oppression: the NFL.
Kaepernick instinctively knows more about purpose marketing and emotionally connecting with minorities than the Nike executives responsible for signing him. His kneeling protest during the national anthem was a brilliant move to keep himself relevant after he had already begun fading from the limelight. He only began to kneel after losing his starting position as quarterback and was so out of mind that two weeks passed before anyone even noticed.
Kaepernick did have some moments of glory. He took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season (which they lost) and was the starting quarterback when the team won the NFC championship the following year. But it was downhill from there, and in Kaepernick’s last two seasons his pass completion rate was among the worst in the league. Kaepernick earned $14 million in his last year of play. By comparison, New England’s Tom Brady, who has won six Super Bowls and 16 division titles, earns $15 million a year.
During his brief period of stardom, Kaepernick’s only activism was for himself. He was trouble even before his kneeling. He stole Aldon Smith’s girlfriend and got into a highly publicized on-field fight with his teammate in training camp. He clamored to be traded to New York where his celebrity girlfriend lived. San Francisco sports columnist Jay Mariotti in 2016 wrote a passionate column calling on the 49ers to be done with the guy.
Kaepernick became a free agent in 2017 but no NFL would sign him. He said it was because of his politics, not his hefty salary expectations and poor performance the preceding two years. The media, which applauded Kaepernick muddying a favorite American sport with the stench of politics, zealously promoted Kaepernick’s narrative and supported his lawsuit alleging that NFL owners colluded not to hire him.
Kaepernick “sacrificed for his beliefs and with a dignified use of free speech, that grandest of American traditions, he came to personify a coming of political age across several sports,” thundered the New York Times.
Kaepernick wasn’t quite the believer in free speech the Times made him out to be. He settled his lawsuit against the NFL reportedly for less than $10 million and agreed to keep his mouth shut as part of the deal. Kaepernick made no reference to Black Lives Matter, the movement he said he was championing when he began his kneeling campaign.
Nike last year tapped Kaepernick to become one of the public faces of the company, whose core customers are under 35 and have a favorable view of Kaepernick. The company is tongue tied about the recall incident. A Nike spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal the recall was because the sneakers “featured an old version of the American flag.”
C’mon. Even a grade school student knows the difference between the current flag and the Betsy Ross version, and I’m certain so did Nike’s sneaker designers when they conceived the shoe. If Nike believed Kaepernick’s argument, the company should have apologized for the white privilege of its management and its board of directors and promised they’d undergo sensitivity training to become better attuned to racist symbols.
Kaepernick has always been out for himself. But he’s now in a position to influence Nike’s sales and marketing practices and promote a purpose that could be a watershed moment in American sports.
Nearly three-quarters of NFL players are people of color, yet there are only two teams owned by people of color, none of them African-American. This is a sore point with black athletes: Basketball star LeBron James said NFL owners “got that slave mentality.” Former Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson likened playing for the NFL as “modern-day slavery.” Defensive back Robert Sherman accused Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as having “the old plantation mentality.”
Nike has a contract with the NFL easily valued at more than $1 billion to provide the league’s 32 teams with swoosh emblazoned logos. If black athletes associate the NFL with slavery, then Nike is condoning the practice with its sponsorship. The company is profiting mightily from what players say is their exploitation.
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” goes the Nike ad. It would be a great lesson for millennials and Gen Z to see whether Nike is willing to put its money where its corporate mouth is. Perhaps partnering with Kaepernick was just a cynical attempt to sell sneakers to trusting consumers who mistakenly believed that Nike really cares about them.
Featured Photo Credit: Eric Drost