Tapping into the Ever-Evolving Human Brand with Controversy



By now, you’ve seen the recent Nike ad—and the multitude of derivative pieces that followed. And we all have our opinions on it. Now that the dust has settled, those that burned their Nike trainers are left with a rage-hangover and the realization that they now need to go out and fork out a hundred bucks for a new pair.

Meanwhile, their heated opinions and social activity on the matter earned Nike more brand exposure than they ever could have hoped for and those that were calling the move “brand suicide” are rapidly pulling down their YouTube videos.

Sales are up, conversation on an important issue they believe in is rampant, and the impact they have made on their audience have turned millions of customers into emotionally loyal advocates.

A Very Public Break-Up

Did they know they would upset many people? Yes. Do they see those people that were upset as their target audience now and in the future? No. This was a very public break-up, and their true audience is far more in love than ever before.

Now I don’t want to get into the politics of this one, not because I don’t want to (I really could), but because I want to talk about a couple of side issues.

While I do think it was a campaign that will be studied for years to come, I’m not writing to simply gush all over Nike. I can’t promise I won’t praise their prowess a little, but there are two topics I want to pull out of this:

  • The changing relationships that led to this campaign
  • The archetype that drove it

1) The Changing Relationships that Led to This Campaign

20 years ago, brands and consumers had a very different relationship than they do today. The communication was one-way broadcast, and there was no dialogue between brand and customer (certainly not the collective customer).

Fast-forward to today.

Brands and consumers have a relationship that’s is far more human than ever before. The dialogue is two-way, and the once powerless consumer holds all the aces. They now expect their brands to “bend the knee” to this new shift in power and are calling for them to show their hands. In the aftermath of the shift, some brands have taken public floggings while others went on the defensive and scrambled to review their business and ethics policies to avoid similar fates.

The Human Brand Is Evolving Rapidly

The smart brands, on the other hand, have sat down by the campfire with their customers, with their ever-developing human characteristics, and have asked their customers what they want. Nike knows who their customers are now, and who they will be in the future. The Millennial generation and the GenZ’s behind them are a different breed.

What was par for the course in generations gone by is no longer being tolerated by these younger consumers? The environmental and social issues that have been allowed to go unchecked by governments and brands alike are now top of the agenda for the growing voice of the collective.

Brands Need to Go All-In on Being Human

Today, customers want to know what the brands they buy into really stand for. What is their point of view and increasingly, what are they going to do about it? Brands are being pulled into the political arena, and it’s a sign of the future for brands.

If they want to sit at the table of the human persona game, then there are table stakes. Nike is the modern brand shining a light into that future that consumers are pushing them towards. They have listened, but this wasn’t a scattergun decision. They’ve done their homework. They know exactly who their audience is and what type of society they’re headed for. Their customers are young, with a mentality that is demanding change and Nike, in their eyes, is part of the solution.

2) The Archetype that Drove It

I wrote an article some months back on brand archetypes, in which Nike was very much the focal point representing the hero. As brands are developing their human characteristics to adapt to this new two-way dialogue environment, personality has never been more important. Nike uses their hero archetype at every touch point and inspires their audience to become their own hero. Their messages are inspirational, and they evoke the desire for mastery. This desire hits at the heart of who their audience really is, helping Nike to forge emotional connections, loyalty, and advocates.

Traditionally, Nike engages the best athletes in the world to don their gear and reinforce their heroic messages through their heroic performances in whatever arena the produce their greatness. In their recent campaign, however, they went one further. By standing up for what he believed in, Colin Kaepernick went beyond the realm of athletic heroism and became a hero for change, for beliefs, and for loyalty to one’s values. In choosing Kaepernick, Nike too, stood for what they believed, side-by-side with Kaepernick and those in search of that change.

A Swoosh That Represents a Belief

Nike has pointed to athletes that represented the hero to inspire their audience in the past.

On the back of this campaign, many will look to their iconic swoosh as a mark for what they believe. Will it rival Harley Davidson on the popular tattoo charts? No. The hero personality is different from the rebellious outlaw. But the emotion their audience feels towards the swoosh now is stronger than ever before.

In celebrating such a hero on such a topic, Nike has inspired millions to stand for what they believe in, even if it means sacrificing everything. In doing so, Nike has embodied the archetype they have built their brand on, and have become that hero they have always aspired to be.