Nike knew it was taking a risk when it put former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in an ad campaign. The choice was guaranteed to anger a large number of current and potential customers, given that Kaepernick had become such a controversial figure for his decision to kneel during the US national anthem in protest of police shootings of black Americans. Nike had even considered dropping its deal with him (paywall).
The campaign, though, did get approval from Nike management, and from Nike cofounder Phil Knight. While Knight retired from his role as chairman of the company’s board in 2016, he still holds the title of chairman emeritus, owns a large share of Nike, and has influence over the brand he built into a global powerhouse. Speaking at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business last month, he explained his thinking about the ad, and how a conversation with NBA star and Nike athlete LeBron James helped convince him to back it.
Knight said there was some hesitation when the advertising department first showed the ad to him and Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO. “Parker looked at it and went, ‘Gulp,'” Knight recalled.
Some weeks before, however, he had been speaking to James, and mentioned his concern about his grandsons getting their driver’s licenses. James admitted being worried about his own son starting to drive, for very different reasons. As James had said publicly in the past, he feared that his son could be shot by the police if he were ever pulled over. It’s the exact sort of situation Kaepernick protested against by kneeling during the anthem.
“I thought of the top hundred worries I have, and that doesn’t make my list,” Knight said. “That was a real eye-opener.”
Knight added that he wasn’t concerned about the backlash that did follow the campaign. “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it,” he said. “And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.”
There were some that did actually shun Nike for it, including a Colorado store that sold off its Nike inventory in protest. It recently closed after the move hobbled its sales.
Nike, on the other hand, hasn’t noticeably suffered. On the contrary, the ad arguably helped its brand image, and its business.
Knight himself came under some scrutiny for donating $2.5 million to the unsuccessful campaign of Knute Buehler, a Republican candidate for governor of Oregon, where Knight lives. Republicans tended to oppose Kaepernick’s NFL protests. Buehler, though, is mostly a social moderate, and Knight’s interest in him seems to have centered on his ideas about revamping Oregon’s public pension system.