Kaepernick & Nike Beyond the Bickering: Social Data Unlocks the Risk of Taking Heady Positions

Posted in branding, Psychographic Targeting

Last week in Koln, Germany, I led an Aimclear content marketing strategy workshop. Content marketing is key for new demand gen, customer attraction, SEO, traffic, and sales.  In perfect form and function, great content leads to PR, and further propel branding and sales.  In the session, we discussed classic content development conventions.

Ironically, in response to these times-a-changing, I added another content idea to our training mix: “Wading into political waters, taking positions.” The benefit to successful interjection can be above-the-fold coverage as news, surrounding controversial issues. Other advantages include the brand expressing authentic opinions, personality, and playing a role in society.  The danger might be hurting the brand’s reputation amongst factions which strongly disagree. This post offers a research technique to predict the outcome.

Waking up for Tuesday’s German work day, the virulent Nike/Colin Kaepernick story had already hit the news machine.  By featuring Colin Kaepernick prominently in its 30th anniversary celebration of “Just Do It,” Nike just claimed a PR prize, albeit it a double-edged sword, strongly associating their brand with a movement and no doubt alienating others.

Colin Kaepernick is famously the now ex-NFL player who knelt during our national anthem to publicize racial injustice and police brutality against African Americans. He was booted from the NFL and a social/political firestorm erupted.

The issue remains polarizing, even as Kaepernick litigates the matter with the NFL, media, and far right devotees. Kaepernick has been sponsored by Nike for ~7 years and they have not dropped him. New Just Do It anniversary ads feature a black and white closeup of Kaepernick’s face with overlaid text saying, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Some who buy into the anti-Kaepernick feed are pissed at Nike, chattering about boycotts, burning shoes, and evangelizing other retribution.

The debate is visible and boring as hell. In social channels, uninformed people take positions absent data. Regardless of which side of the Colin Kaepernick saga you or I take, this much is clear. The right for a company to take positions in socio-political debates of our time, is one reason America is already great.

There’s been judgement on both sides as to the righteousness of Nike’s move.  Some say news-jacking CK is cheap publicity grubbing. Others frame Nike’s move as genius, sticking to their values, which one assumes is the reason Nike stayed with CK after his NFL exit.

On its face, Nike took a boldface risk, chancing angst from the NFL, fans, far right conservatives, and political operatives, etc. That’s the threat anyway. Let’s look into available social data to quantify Nike’s risk and opportunity. The data is fascinating.  We analyzed Facebook Ads vaunted psychographic targeting to study FB users with strong Nike brand(s) affinities.  Each of the datasets below is for Americans who use Facebook between the ages of 16 and 64.

Nike has ~ 32,000,000 Facebook users interested in themes like: Nike+, Nike Air Max, Nike Skateboarding, Nike Women, Nike Basketball, Nike, Inc., Nike Football, Nike Air Force, Air Jordan, Air Max – Nike, Nike Air Force 1, Nike Air Max Shoes, Air Force 1 (shoe) or Nike Air Max 90.  If you’re wondering as to the voracity of such data, remember how Facebook targeting figured in the 2016 US Presidential election. Facebook targeting is mighty powerful. There are other Nike targeting objects in FB but they roll up into the 32 million.  We applied further segmentation the ~ 32,000,000 American Facebook users, ages 16-64, interested in Nike things to shed light on the dynamics of the Colin Kaepernick gambit.

~ 78,000,000 Facebook users are interested in African American things. Below is an excerpt.

~79,000,000 Facebook users show NFL predilections, approximately the same size as African American interests. Targeting includes:

1,269,470 FB users are interested in Colin Kaepernick. Keep in mind, we don’t know if interests are positive or negative, only that CK registers in their social graph. For the purpose of this study we can say that these users are aware.

Now, let’s start layering interests.

~ 16,000,000 of FB users with Nike interests, also have Nike and African American interests. That’s half of FB Nike targeting. Users with both interests may not be offended by protests to raise awareness about police brutality against African Americans.

Only 2.6 million FB. Users with Nike affinities are identified as further right, with interests including: Sean Hannity, The Sean Hannity Show, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly (political commentator), Alex Jones (radio host), Glenn Beck, The Alex Jones Show, RedState, Rush Limbaugh, The Daily Caller, InfoWars or Laura Ingraham. That’s about 8% of Nike’s addressable Facebook audiences. This bucket does not include more moderate conservatives. Data indicates Nike did not risk much of its current audience with the Colin Kaepernick commercial.

Of those 2.6 million further-right FB users, at least 1.1 million have African American interests. The takeaway is some right-wing Nike enthusiasts tend towards African American things. This seems to shrink Nike’s at-risk audience down to 1.5 million out of 32 million, about ~4.7%. Not much risk there.

At least 20,000,000 Facebook Nike users are moderately to very liberal, including:  First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Freedom of speech, Freedom of thought, Activism, Political freedom, Social movement, Left-wing politics, Far-left politics, Rachel Maddow, The Chris Matthews Show, Lawrence O’Donnell, Liberal democracy, The Rachel Maddow Show, Bernie Sanders, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Al Franken, Elizabeth Warren, Progressive Democrats, Michelle Obama, Democratic Progressive Party, Progressive Democrats of America, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren or Jon Stewart Politics: Likely to engage with political content (liberal), US politics (very liberal) or US politics (liberal). These people probably are less likely to be offended by Nike taking a stand on Kaepernick.

~24,000,000 are interested in both Nike and the NFL. So, a lot of Nike’s audience are NFL fans of some ilk.

~450,000 or those 24 million NFL fans are interested in Nike, the NFL, AND Colin Kaepernick. So, regardless of these users’ opinions of Nike, only ~1.4% of Nike’s audiences care either way.

Did Nike take a big risk…? Not really. The vast majority of FB users who register algorithmically as Nike fans are not far right. In fact, ~42% of the further-right FB Nike audience are also interested in African American activities.  And, 20,000 of Nike oriented FB users are liberal enough that Nike does not need to worry.

The Aftermath
After a slight dip in Nike stock, valuation rebounded at the same time as Nike search interest spiked. After search interest normalized, the baseline became higher. That’s PR branding power.

Also, in spite of media-hyped outrage, the sportswear company saw a 31% increase in online sales over Labor Day weekend.  So far as the big Nike burn-my-sneakers movement, there was a bit of social chatter and very few actual videos.

Wading into political waters to take polarizing positions may represent courageous statements or gratuitous PR play. In a perfect world, taking a stand can be both.  At Aimclear, we avoid taking public positions, so as to be respectful of all third parties. That said, we have taken public positions on issues like hunger, regional splendor, homelessness, and community mental health outreach. Nike has chosen to seek whatever intersection of PR and political is authentic for Nike.  The data was on their side before taking the leap and results speak volumes. It is said that customers vote with their wallets. The outcome of this special consumer referendum was an obvious Nike win, which was predictable.

  • Joe Butson

    Thanks for sharing your professional view on the controversy. I appreciate the quick response to the topic and Nike campaign. Agree with your premise that Nike took little risk and the results were predictable. IMO, it was business as usual. Full disclosure. I currently work as a consultant to Nike, within their Enterprise Data group. I am fully briefed on the broad strategies for the current fiscal year for both digital and retail.

    • Marty Weintraub

      Awesome, thanks for stopping by. Our guess is that Nike appreciates this sliced social data. We’ll find you on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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