American Football in the US is the game where people carry the ball, throw it to each other, and bang into each other so hard that a number of them end up having concussions. My American friends assure me that there is strategy to this game – but despite watching “Remember the Titans” several times, I can hardly make sense of the game – but that is a different story!

Kneeling to take a stand

American Football is big in the US. Billions of dollars are spent in the league. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, one of the players for a team called Sanfrancisco 49’ers, chose to kneel instead of stand for the US anthem. He did it to attract attention to what he called as racial injustice.

The country took sides. The conservative, right-wing, republican leaning side condemned the gesture. The other side supported it. President Trump too got involved, condemning the move.

The ripple effect

Several other players followed suit, choosing to ‘take a knee’ when the anthem was played at these games. The controversy refuses to die down, and with the mid-term elections looming in the US, nearly every candidate has had to field questions on where he or she stands on the issue. Colin did not get to play in the 2017 season as no team hired him. He has sued the league for discrimination.

When medium is the message

Recently, Nike made Colin the face of its ad, with the message – “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything!”.  The ad was condemned by one side, and celebrated by the other side.

Several videos surfaced of protestors burning their Nike shoes and Colin Kaepernick jerseys. Nike’s stock took a dip. Within a few days, however, the stock bounced back and is now at an all-time high. Colin Kaepernick jerseys were flying off the shelves of retail stores.

Noble intentions or marketing gimmick?

Pundits have called out Nike’s clever but dangerous strategy of milking a controversy to boost sales. Media experts have estimated that Nike got about $43 Million worth of free buzz around the controversial advertisement.

For a company like Nike with sales of over $35 Billion, should $43 Million worth of free advertising make it wade into an extremely polarizing issue? Would it not lose customers on the other side of the debate? Why did the sales bounce back, and is it sustainable?

Here’s my take:

Nike is in the commodity business. Most consumers will choose another brand like Adidas or Puma or New Balance or Asics, if Nike stops delivering value. Most of the relationships Nike has with customers are transactional in nature. The relationship between Nike and the consumer fizzles out once the newness of the shoe or the jersey wears off; till the next buying cycle.

By choosing to make Kaepernick the hero of this ad campaign, Nike has projected itself as someone who takes a stand (or a knee in this case) on key issues. The polarized politics of recent years makes this issue personal to many. When someone, be it a person, or a company takes the same stance as you do in a deeply divisive argument, it triggers a sense of identity – in this case a sense of oneness with Nike.

Because of Nike identifying themselves with one side of the story, the relationship between (some of) its customers and the brand no longer remains transactional, but becomes personal. Research shows that relationships that customers feel as personal tend to last longer, and are more profitable.

Of course, choosing the side that has larger numbers makes good business sense. However, should a brand merely look at the numbers while choosing a side or should it take a stance based on its values and standards, even if that is the ‘losing’ side? What about its existing customers on the other side of the issue?

What do you think?

Why did Nike’s sales soar after the initial dip? Is it merely the shock value of the advertisement that helped Nike? Or is it because one section of the populace now associates itself with Nike?

Is this kind of a strategy sustainable – or does it leave Nike vulnerable to counter-campaigns that stress on patriotism? Please write to me at I will respond to each of your mails.

Note : This article was originally published on LinkedIn…

Ramesh Dorairaj

Ramesh Dorairaj is consultant, coach and an author. He has 27+ Years of Experience consulting for Fortune 500 companies worldwide. He has groomed 50+ leaders. Has participated in 2.5 Billion $ worth of successful deals.  He is a Certified Executive Coach at Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching, Certified Sales Coach and a Certified Proposal Coach.


Shenzhen Blog Editor