In an era of volatile political beliefs and social media sensationalism, Nike took the unprecedented move of embracing controversy in its new ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign featuring blacklisted 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, Kaepernick sparked waves of political discourse when he kneeled during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. The act was spurned by countless political figures including President Trump himself while simultaneously garnering support from other influential activists such as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. The advertisement, narrated by Kaepernick, featured dynamic snapshots of athletes who overcame significant obstacles to achieve their dreams with the slogan ‘believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.
Despite the initial backlash following this latest branding endeavor, Nike has long relied on a tradition of bold marketing strategies to keep up its image of youthfulness and edge, and the ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign was no different. Through a combination of masterful understanding of its target audience, calculated risk-taking, and efficacious implementation of persuasion tactics, Nike’s bold message precipitated a national conversation and successfully achieved its strategic goal of shaping consumer attitudes toward the Nike brand.
Nike has continuously encouraged taking big risks as part of its brand communications strategy and the ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign, which was circulated during the NFL’s season opener, promoted just that. Despite an industry landscape where few major companies would champion such incendiary material at the risk of angering its consumers, upon deeper examination, Nike’s newest marketing move may not have been as reckless as initially perceived.
The featured athletes in the ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign, which included the likes of world-renowned pros like Serena Williams and Lebron James, as well as less famous but equally as compelling faces like 10-year-old wrestler Isaiah Bird all share a common denominator: they ‘leverage the power of sport to move the world forward’ (Nike’s New Just Do It Campaign). These athletes, all cherry-picked by Nike, were not just chosen for their prestige or good looks, but rather for their role in redefining ‘success’ in sports. ‘Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker. Do both.’ narrates Kaepernick, as the advertisement pans to Michigander Alicia Woollcott, who surpassed all gender barriers to play a traditionally male sport at a high school level (Kapralau, M. 2019).
The advertisement also explores other pioneering athletes, from Megan Blunk to Charlie Jabaley, before finally arriving at Kaepernick, who ends the commercial with the slogan ‘believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.’ These athletes who crush perceptions of the norm to achieve the seemingly impossible – all in the name of chasing their goals – powerfully drive home Nike’s core message to ‘dream crazy’ in the face of hardship and to make a social impact beyond the parameters of athletic fame. In addition to its strong central message, Nike expertly utilizes persuasion principles to craft a beautifully articulated commercial script, which builds an instant emotional connection with the viewer.
Firstly, through the social proof principle, the advertisement capitalizes on the underdog story and relates to audience members by demonstrating how people who are similar to viewers of the ad or perhaps even more disadvantaged have overcome the odds to achieve something magnificent. This is done by showcasing clips of 10-year-old Isaiah Bird, who was born without legs, wrestle an unhandicapped peer to the ground in a competition. The advertisement goes on to incorporate the authority principle, which recognizes the expertise of an individual on a subject matter to assert trustworthiness (Rojas, H. 2020. Principles of Persuasion).
Panning to household names such as Serena Williams and Alex Morgan – celebrities who have made history/changed the game – Kaepernick’s narration emphasizes that the viewer too can do the same. Taking this a step further, the viewer now sees Lebron James on stage to give a speech about his new ‘I promise’ schools, building upon the principle of reciprocity to showcase how an athlete has become greater than his sport. Finally, the principles of likeability and commitment are circulated throughout in the form of Kaepernick’s consistent, inspirational monologue calling for the viewer to ‘picture OBJ wearing your [jersey]’ and ‘don’t believe you have to be like anybody, to be somebody’ (Kapralau, M. 2019).
Not only does the message of ‘overcoming the odds’ appeal to the American Dream, Nike’s stance in this commercial also runs parallel with previous marketing tactics to take risks/be bold in their brand positioning strategy. Most powerfully, the advertisement never once mentions Nike products nor calls the reader to purchase anything. Instead, a central route of persuasion is employed, and the value of the Nike brand is demonstrated through taking a social stand in the form of encouraging its audience to dream large in order to accomplish the incomprehensible.
Though the bombshell ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign faced large amounts of initial pushback, Nike’s decision to air the controversial ad was a carefully weighed marketing endeavor that took into account the risks and rewards of its strategy. Historically, Nike has held a track record of taking bold stances that could be seen as political in their campaigns. For example, Nike had also released an advertisement titled ‘Equality’ not long before the ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign, which focused exclusively on black athletes who have made a difference in their sport. Furthermore, when Roland Garros banned Serena Williams’s black catsuit attire from the court, Nike tweeted, ‘you can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.’ (Draper, K., Creswell, J., & Maheshwari, S. 2018).
The ‘Dream Crazy’ advertisement was a extenuation of Nike’s rich tradition of capitalizing on political discourse and the controversy that ensued, according to Nike’s founder Phil Knight, was ‘kind of the point’ (Beer, J. 2019). Knight was also cited stating, ‘It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something.’ (Beer, J. 2019).
The confidence Nike had to carry through this risky strategy stemmed from the company’s masterful understanding of its core consumer: people 35 years and younger (Green, D. 2018). Furthermore, not only is Nike’s consumer base more ethnically diverse than average, 60% of millennials identified as ‘belief-driven buyers,’ meaning, they expect their brands to take a stand the way Nike did (Green, D. 2018). Thereby, Nike undertook this marketing strategy with full knowledge that it would garner positive attention from its target audience and backlash from everyone else, either way generating plenty of free press and dominating the conversation. This marketing communications strategy by Nike effectively shaped consumer brand perceptions to propagate its image of ‘leader of the pack’ not only in popularity of athleticwear but also in its sociopolitical engagement.
The success of the ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign speaks for itself. Nike made enormous strides in shaping consumer perceptions through capitalizing on a conversation that would be deemed ‘too controversial’ by most large firms. The athleticwear company also demonstrated flawless understanding of its target audience in accepting that there would be backlash but calculating that supporters would drown out the critics. Despite initial #boycottnike twitter trends and sensationalism across the social media sphere predicting the Swoosh’s downfall, ‘the company claimed $163 million in earned media, a $6 billion brand value increase, and a 31% boost in sales’ (Beer, J. 2019).
Moreover, despite an initial 3% dip in Nike stock, ‘on a day where the DOW average had its worst week in 10 years, Nike stock closed at a margin of a 7.2% increase’ (Youn, S. 2018) The ultimate lesson that can be learned from Nike’s campaign? Controversial stands, done right, can solidify a company’s image in the face of rising competition, and build bonds of trust with your target audience. There are endless ways to craft a brand communications strategy. Nike understood the ultimate determiner of success in the marketing sector to be focus on the long-term picture instead of short-term profits.
A year after the ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign, Nike has left its legacy in expounding on issues that extend beyond the world of sports to incite dialogue covering important sociopolitical topics such as equality, gender barriers, and overcoming handicaps to follow your dreams. In attaching a broader meaning to its brand, Nike adds a layer of sophistication to its mission statement and builds loyalty through a central route of persuasion that differentiates its image from the competition.
Through taking bold, calculated risks like incorporating controversial figures such as Kaepernick who have a vested interest in the message of the campaign, Nike solidifies its brand values and simultaneously appeals to the modern belief-driven consumer. Companies can learn from what Nike accomplished with the stipulation that there’s a difference between actually taking a stand and taking a stand for the sake of business profits. Ultimately, by embracing the backlash, understanding its core consumer, creating a persuasive commercial script, and never sacrificing its values, Nike was able to solidify its brand platform in the spotlight and change the game of advertising for years to come.