Here’s why Nike’s Colin Kaepernick gamble wouldn’t work for Under Armour

December 5, 2018

Two weeks after Nike’s campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick debuted, the company’s online sales had risen a whopping 31 percent and its stock had climbed more than 6 percent to an all-time high. With Kaepernick, Nike clearly tapped into something powerful—but it didn’t come without risk.

Immediately after the ad debuted, it was widely reported that Nike’s brand favorability was down, its stock price dipped, videos of people burning their Nike shoes went viral, and critics called for a wholesale boycott of the brand. So how did a gamble that violates the norms of branding and brand safety while creating a chorus of ardent critics ultimately lead to a wildly successful campaign?

In short, Nike found a way to connect with its customers on a visceral level. Its Kaepernick campaign went beyond shoes or clothing and instead tapped into the personal values that drive its customers in every aspect of their lives. That’s also why this gamble would have utterly failed for a brand like Under Armour, according to a recent Resonate analysis of personal customer values.

Given that Nike’s sales spike was reported in online sales, we focused our analysis on the values and drivers of the people who have shopped online with Nike in recent months. Our analysis applied the Theory of Basic Human Values, developed by Shalom H. Schwartz. The so-called Schwartz personal values represent the latest understanding of core human values and have been found to be not only cross-culturally stable but also highly predictive of purchasing behavior.

Take a look at the top four Schwartz values associated with Nike’s online customers, and consider the brilliance of the Nike campaign messaging that tapped into these values.

Influence: This value revolves around acquiring wealth and influence. These individuals are more like to desire the accumulation of wealth, and the status and power that comes from money and material possessions. For them, life is about money and social status.

  • “Don’t become the best basketball player on the planet. Be bigger than basketball.”

Creativity: This value focuses on the freedom to think up new ideas, be creative and develop new skills. These individuals strive to be more individualistic, adaptive and imaginative. For them, life is an exploration and learning about new ideas and being imaginative is important.

  • “So don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if you’re crazy enough.”

Achievement: This value revolves around the opportunity to show one’s abilities and to be admired for what one does. These individuals seek success and the admiration of others for being successful. For them, life is about getting ahead, “winning” and impressing others.

  • “Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school or the fastest runner in the world. Be the fastest ever.”

Independence: This value is all about the freedom to determine one’s own actions. These individuals strive to be more self-directed, more self-reliant and more likely to seek solutions to problems themselves rather than depend on others. For them, life is a sequence of events that is primarily under their own control.

  • “Don’t believe you have to be like anybody…to be somebody.”

When comparing the description of each personal value to the messaging in Nike’s commercials, it’s easy to see how these four values displayed by Nike’s online shoppers line up with the values core to the Nike campaign. Nearly 94 million Americans have shopped for Nike products across all channels in the last six months, and about 150.5 million Americans identify with one or more of the four values listed above. That means that not only was Nike appealing to its base, but it was also deeply resonating with millions of other potential customers that share its brand’s values.

Here’s why the same campaign would have failed for Under Armour

The same personal values analysis of online Under Armour customers paints a completely different picture than Nike customers. Under Armour customers are much more likely to be driven by the personal value of reputation and social respect, suggesting these consumers would respond better to messages around being a good citizen and avoiding dishonor. Meanwhile, Under Armour’s offline customers care about tradition and doing things the way they’ve always been done. In fact, the only value shared by both Under Armour and Nike customers is that of achievement.

Without a doubt, Nike chose an incredibly polarizing figure in Colin Kaepernick, who has sparked both outrage and praise with his protests during the National Anthem. Even though the ad doesn’t endorse or even make mention of his protests or cause (as they are not the subject of the ad), Kaepernick — and thus his politics — are front and center. Given that Under Armour’s customers care deeply about preserving traditions and social respect, there is a clear clash between their values and what Kaepernick represents, which is further highlighted by his line, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

A lot has been written about how today’s consumers want brands to stand for more than a product. Nike knew it was creating an ad that would elicit strong emotional reactions by both supporters and detractors, but it clearly made the right bet. Nike forged a strong emotional bond both with existing customers and with Americans who share its brand values of influence, creativity, achievement and independence.

As shown in this analysis, brands that sell the same kinds of products often have customers who are driven by dramatically different values. That’s why it’s so important to have a deep understanding of what your customers care about before you make a bold move, as Nike did with Kaepernick. If Under Armour had made the same bet, the results would have been very different.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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