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Nike is setting the tone for sports brands in its response to the George Floyd protests

Daniel Roberts
Editor-at-Large

After five days of social justice protests in cities across America following the death of George Floyd at the hand of Minneapolis police, big companies are feeling pressure to speak out in some way. Of course, corporate responses to this cultural moment are not the most important thing to anyone right now, but silence during this time is seen by many consumers as complicity.

Nike was the first to speak out among big sports apparel brands, which is in keeping with the brand’s advocacy for social justice reform over the past few years.

On Friday night at 6:50pm EST, Nike posted to its social accounts a 60-second video, with only white text on a black background, that read: For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don’t make any more excuses. Don’t sit back and be silent. Don’t think you can’t be part of the change. Let’s all be part of the change.” In its tweet, Nike added the hashtag #UntilWeAllWin. Nike posted the video to all of its sub-brands including Converse and Jordan Brand.

Protesters defend the Nike store from looting yelling "peaceful protest" during nationwide unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Long Beach, California, U.S., May 31, 2020. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon

In an email to Nike (NKE) employees, obtained by Yahoo Finance’s Reggie Wade, new CEO John Donahoe explained the company’s thinking in releasing the video: “It is absolutely wrong what’s happening in our communities, to our friends and family members. These tragedies are not unique to the U.S. Far from it – we see violent incidents in countries all over the world, fueled by hatred and ignorance... Let me be as clear as I can: Nike is opposed to bigotry. We are opposed to hatred and inequality in all its forms, indirect and overt. While Nike cannot solve injustice, I believe we have a responsibility to work toward addressing it to the best of our ability.”

Nike so nailed its response that its rival Adidas, rather than put out its own statement, merely amplified Nike’s: six hours after Nike’s post, Adidas retweeted Nike and added, “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change.” Reebok, which is owned by Adidas Group, retweeted Adidas’s retweet of Nike.

Brooks Running, the Seattle-based sneaker brand owned by Berkshire Hathaway, followed suit and retweeted Nike on Saturday afternoon, adding “When we all step up, the world steps forward.”

Some sports brands did post their own messages, and many went a step further than a statement and urged action by directing followers to specific petitions or funds. Under Armour posted a short message: “We stand for equality. One playing field. One voice. One future where we’re truly equal. Because united, we win.” New Balance asked its followers to “join us in supporting the petition for Justice for George Floyd.” Puma posted a definition of the word “reform” with the iconic photo of Olympic gold medalist runner Tommie Smith raising his fist at the 1968 Summer Olympics, and said, “We need to take action together. We are choosing to support the Minnesota Freedom Fund.” Korean-owned sneaker brand Fila announced a $100,000 donation to Black Lives Matter.

Protesters past by a NIKE store boarded up with a wood slabs as protests over the death of George Floyd continue Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Los Angeles. Armed National Guard soldiers lined the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, and cities across California declared curfews Sunday to head off more violence. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Nike’s video in many ways set the tone, and is consistent with a social justice shift that Nike initiated in 2018, when it made Colin Kaepernick the face of its new ad campaign. At the time, Kaepernick was no longer playing in the NFL, but his protest of police brutality had caught fire in the league. The NFL had become a punching bag of President Trump on Twitter, and some Americans were threatening to boycott the league if the protests continued.

By endorsing Kaepernick, Nike took a stand on a hot-button political issue, and while it outraged some consumers, it was a net positive for the brand in the long run. Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert with Baker Street Advertising, told Yahoo Finance at the time, “The attention it will gain, the publicity, the media discourse, the incredible reaction will far outweigh any loss of business that might result. For every swoosh that’s lost, one or more will be gained.”

NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway, an influential commentator on brand strategy, writes in his latest newsletter that Nike’s embrace of Kaepernick has brought business upside: “Nike embraced Colin Kaepernick and took a calculated risk that paid off. The math? People of color have a higher representation in Nike’s customer base than the population at large... This was a genius, shareholder-driven move.”

In 2020, the original message of Kaepernick’s kneeling (which began in 2016) is re-resonating again, and his Nike contract remains active. Nike took a political side two years ago, and now, as the protests demonstrate an outpouring of rage amid a global pandemic, the brand is sticking by that strategy.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and focuses on sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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