Not too long ago, Nike’s 30th-anniversary ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, generated a great controversy. Because of his protest action against racial injustice and police brutality, where he always knelt as the national anthem played before each game, Colin roused a lot of unfriendly reactions and this caused NFL to take a nosedive that season.
It was expected that Nike using this same guy in their campaign ad would also make them take a plunge for the deep but surprisingly, Nike’s stock reached an all-time high by mid-September. Contrary to what most expected, the athletics company saw huge gains in sales that month, making a whopping sum of $6 billion.
Many thanks to the fact that the controversial issue reinvigorated the issues behind Colin’s protest and stirred discussions around them. What lessons can entrepreneurs garner from this?

  • Always turn controversy in your favour. This can be made possible when these controversies are approached cautiously. The approach used in controversial issues sets the tone of the outcome for your business. This we can see from the Pepsi debacle with the infamous Kendall Jenner protest ad, and how it turned out. Though both controversial issues (Jenner and Kaepernick) were somewhat related, Pepsi’s led to a huge failure while Nike’s shot its sales through the roof. In the light of this, choose your brand ambassadors wisely. It is better they have an actual connection with the controversial issue than a “seeming” connection.
  • As it is commonly said, “any publicity is good publicity”. Even if the outcome isn’t favourable, it would still bring some good traffic to your business and cause a boost no matter how small. That is the power of social media. So in the end, a backlash isn’t such a terrible thing. Instead, you can use it to gain more exposure and support from the public.
  • Pick your battles wisely. Know those who would support your fight and those who wouldn’t. Even before the battle, you should be able to predict the likely outcome, so you can plan how to take a calculated risk. Controversial issues that have a good number of young ones/millennials on the supporting or opposing side of the issue is bound to cause a lot of hype and depending on which side has more supporters, then you can see the likely outcome of the battle.
  • Never compromise your values. No matter how controversial the issue gets, stand for your values and never allow your business to falter or sway side-by-side. Despite the turn out of the Kaepernick issue, Nike’s values which were centred on mindsets such as never giving up, rising to the challenge, sacrificing for the greater good and serving a purpose, were unwavered. In the advert, the headline said, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” 

Always bear in mind that with controversial issues, one tends to get lots of supporters as well as detractors. The more they debate, the more publicity your business gets. Use this wisely.

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