4 Things That Made Nike's 2018 'Believe In Something' Campaign Unforgettable


Nike’s latest campaign, led by Colin Kaepernick, defines the apparel company’s move towards its most polarizing campaign to date. With Kaepernick in the background, the message in the foreground reads:

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

It can be viewed as notable or notorious. Brave or brash. The left-leaning proclamation is one that momentarily left company stockholders shook… until sales skyrocketed by 31% almost instantaneously and NKE’s share price hit a never-before-seen high.

The campaign was successful, and a case study for brands on how to wade through today’s hyper-political waters. Nike understands that their key to unlocking commercial success is not only by boldly aligning with cultural trends in sports, but with athletes and movements that aim to leave behind a social impact. Nike has a long history implementing this approach.

Previously, Nike showcased NBA All-Star Charles Barkley as an athlete that was not a role model, proving that there is no one way to be a superstar in the public eye. After Congress legislated the Title IX bill, Nike powerfully cast young girls as challengers of society, daring the world to let them play sports.

Now, Nike has developed an entire campaign led by Colin Kaepernick, an athlete that has provocatively risked everything in his career to fight for racial justice and equality. Another progressive, cultural trendsetter amongst many that came before him.

Here are the reasons Nike’s approach with Kaepernick was so successful:

True partnership.

This partnership is strongly rooted in Kaepernick’s values, and Nike’s values.

In most partnerships, a partner is brought in to simply amplify the desired marketing message of the brand. This typically translates into brands not doing their due diligence in finding a partner that fits virtuously.

Most brands wind up chasing someone that is famous and culturally relevant in a given moment, ending up in situations where the partner is truly popular but ineffectively leveraged in spreading an authentic message.

Reebok, for example, has partnered with hip-hop artists 50 Cent, Rick Ross, and even Tyga, on sneaker collaborations while each artist was a hot commodity. However, none of them were necessarily value fits for Reebok. As a result, as these artists’ moments fleeted, their partnerships became forgotten.

By taking the atypical approach of fitting a marketing message to a culturally relevant partner’s message, Nike ensures their partnerships are mutually beneficial, authentic, and subsequently longstanding.

Kaepernick is divisive.

Nike chose Kaepernick when every other brand on the face of the planet wouldn’t dare to even say his name, but Kaepernick and what he represents aligns with the progressive audience that Nike wants to reach.

Their usage of him won’t be soon forgotten.

Nike Isn’t Out To Please Everyone.

Nike followed suit of their own campaign line, and that’s why their campaign worked.

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

Although it may have appeared that Nike sacrificed their equity in a huge way by choosing Kaepernick to be their leading star, in actuality they did not.

While they could have created a campaign that was agreeable to the masses, it wouldn’t have inspired love from the audience that they wanted engage with most. By rolling with Kaepernick, it signifies that Nike is doubling down on a powerful connection with a particular progressive audience that the brand has identified to be more profitable for the long haul.

Nike and their audience likely views Kaepernick’s social doings as ones that fall in line with Muhammad Ali’s, Bill Russell’s, and others. In Nike’s eyes, his actions add to the tradition of outspoken athletic greats.

To be able to claim that they stood by an athlete of this kind, in this political climate, is something they believe will have long-term value. A 31% sales increase in the short-term is all gravy.

They tapped into a like-minded network to help amplify the work.

In order to ensure their campaign’s long-term value, Nike had to first take care of its initial splash. The brand did so by making sure that everybody that they wanted to see it, saw it.

To drive widespread awareness (and no doubt spark debate in the process), Nike launched two minute long extended TV commercial buy during the 2018 NFL Season opening game on NBC’s Thursday Night Football.

But on social media, specifically, a variety of Nike athletes helped spread Nike’s campaign even further.

Nike carefully assembled a roster groundbreaking athletes, from Serena Williams and Lebron James, to less mainstream athletes like German boxer Zeina Nassar, and leaned on them to amplify their campaign’s message as it related to their respective sports and audiences.

(Find the full list of every athlete that made their hero video, here.)

The work was simple, repeatable, and projectable.

If their distribution strategy doesn’t show how malleable their campaign’s message is, the litany of memes that followed certainly does.

This campaign’s famed Kaepernick photo has been parodied frequently. Some memes feature digitally ubiquitous Hollywood actor Nicholas Cage; others feature another Hollywood star that’s oft been the butt of meme lore in Owen Wilson; and of course, a meme staple, cats.

You could debate that the parodies of the original work minimize the importance of the change that the work intends to inspire. You could debate that, in the long-term, the memes will be forgotten while the work becomes immortalized.

What cannot be debated is that the work earned the attention of the masses, now. There’s very little branded work that succeeds in doing even that. But the work that does is usually as interactive and copyable as Nike’s.

2015’s Straight Outta Compton movie was hyped up on Snapchat with a “Straight Outta _______” geofilter that left everyone feeling creative.

IHOP’s infamous name change opened up the floodgates to the Internet’s best reactions, from both brands and fans.

If copying is truly the sincerest form of flattery, then Nike should be grateful for every internet meme that’s based around their campaign. It’s proof that the work mattered.

Creating something that’s easily duplicable was likely a conscious decision on their part, understanding that if people are able to recreate and run with their work, it will only become more widespread in culture.

Nike’s campaign was effective by doing much more than just slapping Colin Kaepernick onto a photo, and calling it a day. They thoughtfully executed a big, simple idea as a part of a true partnership that was led by their partner’s position in culture, and enrolled a roster of like-minded talent to help amplify their message.

It’s deliberately not mass-appealing. It’s pragmatically provocative. It’s a campaign that will stand the test of time.