"Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything." With that nine-word tweet, sent on a quiet Sunday afternoon in September, Nike and Colin Kaepernick kicked off a campaign that would go on to win fans, create enemies and refuel a conversation about the role brands should—or should not—play in tackling societal issues.
Depending on who you asked, Nike was either a crusader for social justice or an unpatriotic agitator making a hero out of the man who started the movement of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem as a means to bring attention to racial inequities. Kaepernick was not the only athlete in the campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of the "Just Do It" slogan, but he narrated one spot, which quickly became a lightening rod. Spike Lee praised Nike for being "on the right side of history." Republican Sen. Ted Cruz bashed the brand for being "on the wrong side of the American people."
Either way, Nike ended up right where it needs to be: in the middle of a debate that drew attention, admiration and—most importantly—sales from the urban millennials it needs to keep the swoosh strong. Along the way, the company proved it pays to take a stand, and it put to shame mealy-mouthed brands that claim to plug into culture but fall short with marketing that fails to portray a point of view on anything at all.
Nike's Kaepernick ad stands as a textbook example of how a marketer can change the conversation, a strategy that industry experts say will be emulated by many brands in 2019. "Virtually every CMO is going to look at [the campaign and say] 'How can we capture that magic?'" says Keith Johnson, VP and research director for the CMO research practice at Forrester.
For these reasons, Nike—which also made revenue leaps this year by bolstering its direct-to-consumer sales pipeline—is Ad Age's 2018 Marketer of the Year.
"Nike has regained its footing and is solidly marching back to top form," wrote Camilo Lyon, a retail analyst at Canaccord Genuity, in a recent research report. Nike had been losing steam to Under Armour, Adidas and some startups, but Lyon predicted that forthcoming product innovations will spark "the next multi-year run for Nike."
The company is already sprinting. Revenue soared to $9.9 billion in the quarter ending Aug. 31, up 10 percent from the same period a year earlier. Net income in the quarter jumped 15 percent over last year to $1.1 billion. Much of the gains are from Nike's online division; in the quarter, digital sales jumped 36 percent year-over-year.
The ad featuring Kaepernick, called "Dream Crazy," was unveiled on TV Sept. 5 during the NFL's season opener. The spot by Wieden & Kennedy also included other sports stars like LeBron James and Serena Williams, as well as lesser-known athletes like 10-year-old Isaiah Bird, a wrestler who was born without legs.