Kicks have always been political, and Nike has always sought to capture new generations with its use of intense color. This is a company that built itself on chroma-fluorescent blues and acetate volt greens. The Colin Kaepernick campaign falls in that category: It’s a transactional piece of advertising that seeks to hook into the vanguard yearnings and values of its buyers by using a surprising hue. If the campaign is important, it’s not as an act of corporate conscience, but rather as a reflection of coming American demographics, which Nike is always so good at identifying and signifying.
Burning shoes and flaming hashtags are not unwelcome at Nike. The viral images of swooshes on fire won’t bother the marketers who decided to use Kaepernick one bit. This is a company that has been losing ground to Vans and for the first time in a decade didn’t have the most popular shoe in America in 2017, surpassed by Adidas Superstar. What Nike always has been best at is staying ahead, and the risk of employing Kaepernick in a campaign is nothing compared with what it risks by falling behind. Here’s why:
Millennials, those Americans between the ages of 22 and 37, are projected to surpass baby boomers as the nation’s largest living adult generation in 2019, and fully 44 percent of them are of some race other than white. For post-millennials, that number rises to 48 percent, and for post-post-millennials (American children under age 10), it grows to more than 50 percent.
These Americans are “very different than earlier generations” in a variety of ways, according to demographer William Frey, author of “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America.” They are more prone to interracial marrying, friendlier to immigration and often want their consumption to have a social component. If Nike is willing to offend its graying buyers in order to court these multiple generations with a racial justice campaign, “it’s a good bet that a lot of younger people will be attracted and go along with that,” Frey said.
Andrew McCaskill, senior vice president of global communications at Nielsen, puts these demographics in stark business terms. “If you don’t have a multicultural strategy, you don’t have a growth strategy,” he says.
Nike knows movements. Its shoes are in a way chronicles of seismic American shifts, sort of like Stetsons, stovepipes, fedoras and trucker caps. It has long been a hallmark of Nike’s collective genius to recognize that sneakers are significant artifacts. They mark our youths and our fads, chart our decades and our societal shifts from decorative to active and back again. There is a reason Prada and Gucci got into making sneakers and that Galliano put so many of them on the runway this spring. A 2016 curatorial museum exhibit titled, “Out of the Box, the Rise of Sneaker Culture,” was made up of 200 years of kicks, and every pair had meaning.
Fred Perry’s elegant white leather tennis slippers, so symbolic of grassy leisure. Jesse Owens’s Dassler cleats, designed by German brothers who later split and named their separate companies Puma and Adidas. Converse’s original Chuck Taylors, emblematic of the mill-town teams that would spawn professional basketball. The women’s Reeboks that went with unitards and leg warmers and bespoke a new female muscularity. The retro-canvas movement spawned by Kurt Cobain and skateboarders.
All of which is a reminder that Nike has been here before and knows the business of zeitgeist better than any shoe company in history. It faced a similar slowdown and loss of buzz once before, in 1984, when its running shoes fell out of favor during the aerobic revolution. How did it respond? By signing Michael Jordan, and creating the Air Jordan brand, and then pitching his shoes as an iconic piece of rebellion against uniform culture.
Nike’s mentions on social media skyrocketed after news of the Kaepernick ad broke. In 24 hours, there were more than 2.7 million references to the brand, according to the analytic firm Talkwalker. And Kaepernick is just one small piece of what is apparently a much larger millennials strategy: Last year, CEO Mark Parker announced a new 12-city drive, as the company tries to become once again an entity that “obsesses the needs of the evolving consumer.” Among the target cities are Mexico City, Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul and Milan, and the company projects 80 percent of its projected growth will come from metropolitan areas. Why? Because that’s where diverse, high-earning, younger people live.
They want apps that let them buy instantly on demand, shorter “creation cycles” and flashy new shoes faster. And they apparently want to feel better about what they buy. According to Nielsen’s McCaskill, significant percentages of millennials and post-millennials say they expect the brands they buy to support social causes. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanics agree they are more likely to buy brands that support something they care about. The old assumption and traditional wisdom that companies must avoid activist stances is over.
“Times have changed, and the zeitgeist has changed, and consumers have changed significantly,” McCaskill said. “Previous generations made purchase decisions more on value, on cost, on quality. Younger generations are now making a lot of purchase decisions based on values, or some combination of the two.”
For all that its products seem ephemeral, the rubber flotsam of fadness, Nike as a company has always had an overtly long view. It thoroughly understands its place in American culture, right at the juxtaposition of fashion and technology. It designs shoes as if it expects they will indeed one day be curated, possibly even wind up in the Smithsonian. What it sees in Kaepernick is not just a digital poster but the face of an entire new wave. In that sense, Nike’s campaign is not radical. It’s the furthest thing from it. It’s just the future.