Colin Kaepernick ad for NIke

Just Do It: How Nike Does Public Relations

Want to generate the kind of PR that most brands only dream of? Pay attention to Nike.

When you think of Nike and PR, you probably think of American Football player Colin Kaepernick. After all, his ‘Just Do It’ ad with Nike is one of the most talked-about campaigns in recent history.

But for Nike, public relations goes way beyond their partnership with the former NFL quarterback. They invest heavily in PR: over a billion and a half dollars every year, according to database company Statista. In comparison, very little goes towards making its shoes. A $100 pair of trainers costs under $30 to manufacture.

These figures explain a lot about Nike’s priorities. The company cares about innovation, and they even have a scientific research lab in Oregon. But the average person doesn’t buy Air Jordans because Nike uses cutting-edge tech to make them. They buy Air Jordan because they have Michael Jordan’s name and the Nike logo on them.

In other words, PR is at the core of Nike’s business.

Let’s look at three key reasons Nike uses public relations:

1. To reach new audiences

Margot v Lily Nike PR campaign

You might think that Nike only has one audience: young, fit, sporty guys. That might have been true once, but not anymore. For Nike, PR has helped them broaden their target market, to include everyone from hip-hop fans and young kids, to avid trainer collectors.

One of their most notable PR pushes, however, has been to connect with women. This goes back to 1995, with their If You Let Me Play campaign, which encouraged parents to get their daughters into sport.

The focus on women has continued over the last decade, with some notable PR stunts including:

Margot vs Lily was a particularly good example of a unique way to reach a niche audience. The show, which focuses on two friends swapping fitness routines, was written by Gen Y author Jesse Andrews and released on YouTube, both of which speak to millennials. The great thing is that you could, of course, also buy all the gear the characters wear via Nike’s online store.

Nike is renowned for targeting its PR at specific audiences. And their efforts to reach out to women have resulted in women making up roughly 1/5th of Nike’s global revenue, according to Statista.

2. To build brand loyalty

Brand loyalty is key to generating repeat business. And the way to establish loyalty is to deepen the connection your fans feel to your brand.

Nike does this to great effect. They use their Twitter account to respond with fun or encouraging replies to people posting images of their new shoes or fitness goals.

Nike Tweet

These posts aren’t seen by the wider community, and don’t get many likes, but getting a response from Nike is a great ego boost for the people who post the images and an easy PR win for Nike. This is one of the great things about Nike – PR isn’t all about flashy stunts. They use public relations in a subtle way to make fans feel like they have a personal relationship with the brand.

Another good example of this is how Nike treats so-called ‘sneakerheads’, those diehard shoe collectors who love nothing more than hunting down exclusive deals.

Nike first targeted this mega-vocal minority back in 2015 with their SNKRS app. The app advertises limited-release trainers, which make up less than 5% of industry sales. But by 2019, SNKRS made up 20% of Nike’s digital business. This discrepancy in the numbers was the direct result of the PR push to this highly loyal and motivated fanbase.

The lesson? Bringing your niche super-fans into the fold pays off, even if they make up a small part of your audience.

3. To stay relevant

Nike Play for the World ad

Nike is over fifty years old. In any market, that’s plenty of time for a new competitor to spring up, paint a brand as outdated, and steal their market share.

That’s exactly what happened in the 1980s, when Reebok appeared on the scene and nabbed a quarter of the US sneaker market. They did this by marketing their shoes not just to athletes, like Nike did at the time, but as stylish accessories people could wear outside of sport.

This revolutionary approach won them loads of fans. Nike took heed of Reebok’s success and has worked hard ever since to stay up-to-date with current trends.

This is evident from how they responded to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

For Nike, public relations that tells a story has always been a speciality. Take their slogan, ‘Just Do It’. It’s a classic message of perseverance. This carried through into the pandemic when the brand told fans to ‘play for the world’ by staying inside. By engaging with Nike, you weren’t just burning off lockdown fat, but helping to save lives.

Want to know more about PR and storytelling? Read: The Power of PR Storytelling

Nike PR case study: Colin Kaepernick

Serena Williams ad for Nike

We’ve seen that Nike uses PR to reach new audiences, build brand loyalty and stay relevant. Now, let’s see how these goals tie into their most famous campaign: the 2018 Dream Crazy advert, featuring Colin Kaepernick.

Throughout 2016, Kaepernick publicly protested police brutality against black Americans by taking the knee and refusing to stand for the national anthem. As a result, he lost his position with the NFL and faced criticism from then-president Donald Trump.

In 2018, he teamed up with Nike for a now-famous advert with the tagline, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’

You might wonder why Nike went with such a controversial figure. In fact, a controversial athlete who hadn’t played professional football for two years when they hired him. As it turns out, they almost didn’t.

Kaepernick had actually been on Nike’s roster since 2011, and they came very close to cutting him off in 2017 after his NFL expulsion. It took Nigel Powell, Nike’s head of communications, to personally keep the contract active. The official company line is that Nike used Kaepernick because he was ‘one of the most inspirational athletes of his generation’. Powell was more candid: Kaepernick appealed to an urban youth demographic Nike wanted to capture.

In any case, the ad provoked a flurry of responses. While many people were supportive, a loud minority boycotted Nike and even burned their shoes.

Despite the uproar, the Dream Crazy gamble paid off. Following the launch of the ad:

That’s a PR win.

The obvious question, then, is what made the controversial campaign such a success and how did Nike emerge without permanent reputational damage? There were two key elements. On one hand, the ad was designed perfectly for Nike’s target audience. On the other, it used the power of celebrity to carry the message past the backlash they knew they’d get.

Let’s examine these two points in a bit more detail:

Nike PR Success #1: Nike knew their audience

As marketing professor Scott Galloway put it, Nike did their math.

While many NFL fans are socially-conservative and unlikely to empathise with Kaepernick, they aren’t Nike’s target audience. The partnership endeared Nike to socially liberal consumers, who are younger, have more disposable income, and feel passionately about brands that stand up for social issues.

Let’s examine that last point in more detail.

More and more people want brands to take a stand on hot topics such as police brutality. The National Retail Federation found, for instance, that 74% of people would let how companies responded to the Black Lives Matter protests affect their purchasing decisions.

The partnership with Kaepernick, then, didn’t just put Nike on the right side of history. It also locked in an increasingly-important market of socially-conscious consumers. Clever move.

Nike PR Success #2: Nike used influencers well

A celebrity endorsement can be a powerful tool for influencing public opinion, as Nike found after the Kaepernick ad:

Without the support of these respected, high-profile figures, the shoe-burning haters could’ve easily drowned out the rest of the discourse and Nike executives may have felt that they had no choice but to backpedal.

Pepsi did this the year before with their soul-crushingly bad Kendall Jenner advert. Progressives and conservatives alike were outraged at how it casually co-opted police brutality to sell fizzy drinks. Not the most tactful of moves.

Serena Williams, who is also on the Nike roster, appeared in a follow-up campaign called Dream Crazier.

The message here is that there are two sides to using influencers in a PR campaign. While grassroots support is a big advantage, you shouldn’t count on it. Instead, call up whatever influencers you have a relationship with, even if they’re not directly related to the campaign. Their involvement gives your campaign extra kudos.

For more read: How to use influencers to supercharge your PR campaign.

As we’ve seen, Nike was on point with their Kaepernick partnership. But public relations is about more than just proactive messaging. To understand Nike’s public relations strategy, you also have to look at what happens when things go wrong.

Nike, public relations and crisis: Zion Williamson

Basketballer Williamson breaks Nike shoe

The more a company sells itself on image, the more vulnerable it is to attacks on its image. Bad PR can decimate your reputation and your bottom line. This is why crisis management is a vital part of public relations. It’s about how you take control of bad situations, fix mistakes and deliver good apologies.

Here’s a primer: Crisis Management in Public Relations.

For an example of Nike’s crisis management, let’s fast forward to 2019, a few months after Dream Crazy.

Seconds after Duke University basketballer Zion Williamson stepped on to court, his Nike shoe fell apart on live TV. That’s already pretty bad. But to make things worse, ex-President Barack Obama was there and reporters caught him mouthing the words ‘his shoe broke’. Perfect material for a damning social media clip.

To say this was dire for Nike would be an understatement. The image of a company dedicated to high-quality sports gear was at stake. A response was needed, and quickly. But despite their usual PR prowess, Nike’s response to this crisis wasn’t perfect.

I’m going to break down one thing they did poorly, one thing they did well, and how they stopped the incident from escalating into a full-blown crisis.

Nike PR Lesson #1: Avoid a slow response

Social media is a wonderful PR tool. You only need to look at Nike’s Twitter feed to see how it enables them to engage with fans on a personal level.

But it’s a double-edged sword. Within seconds of Williamson’s shoe bursting, reactions to it spread through social media like wildfire. Rival company PUMA, seeing their chance, jumped online with a snappy dig (now deleted):

Puma Twitter Response to Nike

In contrast, it took Nike until the next day to put out an uncharacteristically bland response. ‘We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.’

Partly due to this delay, Nike’s stock price dropped a billion dollars in a day after the incident. A lot of that could have been avoided if they’d taken control of the narrative from the start.

When a crisis hits, you don’t have time to workshop your response. In the social media world, it’s better to get a message out as quickly as possible to let people know you’re aware of the issue and you are working to fix it.

Nike PR Lesson #2: Don’t bury your head in the sand

Although Nike was asleep at the wheel for the initial response, they aced the follow-up. It would have been easy for them to see their shares dropping, panic and keep quiet until things blew over. Instead, Nike sent a team of researchers to their factories in China to find out what went wrong and prototype a more resilient shoe.

A week later, Williamson returned to the court with a pair of new-and-improved Nike trainers, and his praise was just what the company needed: ‘The shoes were incredible,’ he said. ‘I want to thank Nike for making these.’

This stunt demonstrated that Nike was still on good terms with Williamson, and how far they were willing to go to make things right. Way better than pretending the incident never happened.

The lesson here is simple. You can’t predict when a crisis is going to happen, but you can use one as an opportunity for good PR.

Nike PR Lesson #3: How past PR can help weather the storm

One of the most important things to remember about PR is that it’s long-term. Stuff you did years ago will affect your public image today.

For better or worse, Dream Crazy is going to dominate Nike’s image for years to come, and will make people forget smaller crises like Williamson’s shoe much more quickly than they would otherwise. Part of PR is making people pay attention to what you want them to. But even more important is getting them to ignore what you want. One of the best ways to do that is with a big, bold PR campaign that swallows up the negative stories and keeps your image positive.

Want to get some of Nike’s PR success for yourself? Get in touch today and let’s get started.



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