Nike's polarising new Colin Kaepernick ad shows it can succeed where Starbucks and Target failed

Hollis Johnson/Business InsiderNike’s newest ad featuring Colin Kaepernick is making waves.

Nike is walking a delicate tightrope with its newest ad featuring Colin Kaepernick. Fortunately for the brand, it’s an adept trapeze artist.

The brand’s new ad features a close-up of the former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The reference to sacrifice most likely links Kaepernick’s going unsigned in the NFL to his kneeling during the national anthem, which he did in 2016 to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

The ad was a bold move rarely seen from brands as large as Nike. It shocked some business observers, who noted the risk it entails.

“Nike’s campaign will generate both attention and discussion which is, arguably, one of its central aims. However, it is also a risky strategy in that it addresses, and appears to take sides on, a highly politicized issue,” Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, said in a note.

He added: “Nike likely weighed the risks beforehand but, in our view, while it is noble to take a stand on something, it is also commercially imprudent to dash headlong into a very sensitive issue which polarizes opinion.”

Saunders isn’t the only one who was shocked by Nike’s willingness to embrace the risk.

An unnamed sports retail executive told Yahoo Sports that the ad is “the most controversial move [with an endorser] that Nike has ever made. I can’t think of anyone in the history of Nike that would come close.”

Despite the risk, the ad has been enormously successful by at least one measure. Nike and its ad were top-trending terms on Twitter on Monday when the ad was tweeted by Kaepernick. Nike has already seen more than $US43 million worth of media exposure, nearly $US19 million worth of which was positive, according to Apex Marketing Group data reported by Bloomberg.

Starbucks and Target have struggled with addressing social issues in the past

The polarised reactions show the thin line Nike is walking – and doing so successfully thus far.

Other major retailers who have weighed in on social issues haven’t been quite so successful in the past.

An infamous Starbucks campaign in 2015 called “Race Together” encouraged baristas to discuss race relations with customers when they’re ordering or picking up their drink. Though some saw the merit in the attempt, the campaign was panned by customers of all stripes, and it confused many employees.

Some on social media accused Starbucks of looking to profit from racial tension, and Business Insider’s Hayley Peterson called it the most embarrassing moment in Starbucks’ history.

In 2016, Target’s opposition to a state bill sparked a nationwide boycott. It publicized its longstanding policy of allowing customers to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity. The post was in response to a North Carolina bill that aimed to legislate bathroom use in public places and require people to use the gendered bathroom that corresponded to their birth certificate.

The boycott, which was led by conservative groups angry at the policy, resulted in millions of lost sales for the company, mostly in stores in southern states. CEO Brian Cornell told staff that the retailer did not run a thorough enough review of the risk associated with such a public statement, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That’s the difference between Nike’s new ad and other retailers’ blunders – Nike’s risk was calculated.

Around 67% of Nike’s customer base is younger than 35, according to NPD Group data reported by Bloomberg, and as a group it’s more ethnically diverse than average. Younger customers are more likely to expect the brands they buy from to take a stand as Nike just did, with 60% of millennials identified as “belief-driven buyers” globally, according to a 2017 study by Edelman. In fact, half of all customers in the survey said they bought based on belief.

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