The National Football League's 2018 season is here and the national anthem controversy is back with a new wrinkle. Nike has launched an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started the kneel-or-stand anthem argument.
The new campaign caused a stir among those who lean right this week. On social media, people shared videos of burning and shredding Nike merchandise. And President Donald Trump tweeted "What was Nike thinking?" But companies don't become multi-billion dollar brands by making rash decisions and when you look closer at the numbers, there may be more than a little strategy behind Nike's new campaign.
First, looking at Nike consumers through a partisan lens, they tend to lean Democratic, according to data from our friends at Simmons Consumer Research.
The numbers show that Democrats are 14 percent more likely than average to have purchased a pair of Nikes shoes in the last year. Republican, meanwhile, are 12 percent less likely to have purchased shoes bearing the "swoosh."
And Nike stands out in this regard in the numbers. It has the strongest Democratic lean of a long list of athletic shoe companies including Reebok, Puma, New Balance, Converse Asics and Adidas.
What's driving that divide? There's a long list of factors that go into brand allegiance, but in this particular case race and age seem to play a very big role. As a party, self-described Democrats tend to be younger and more diverse than the nation as a whole and those same trends show up with Nike.
The data show that African-Americans are 56 percent more likely than average to have purchased Nike shoes in the last year. White Americans are 14 percent less like to have purchased Nikes.
And Nike does best with consumers under the age of 50. Americans in the 18-34 age group are 37 percent more likely than the average American to have purchased shoes from the company in the last year. For those ages 35-49, the number is similar. They are 35 percent more like to buy Nikes.
But consumers who are 50 or older are 41 percent less likely to buy shoes from Nike.
Is that simply because older people buy fewer athletic shoes? In part, but that doesn't change the fact that Nike's target market is younger than the nation at large. And the Simmons data show some brands actually do better with older consumers: Those over 50 are 21 percent more likely to buy New Balance shoes.
In sum, Nike's consumer base that is younger, more diverse and more Democratic than the nation at large and other data show those kinds of consumers are also more likely to support civil protest and brands taking a stand on social issues.
The Simmons numbers show Democrats, African Americans and those under the age of 34 are much more likely to agree with the statement "if I feel strongly about an issue, I would participate in civil protest."
And in 21st Century America, where the president was a brand before he was in the White House, politics and consumer culture have become deeply intertwined, especially on the left, according to an online survey from the firm Social Sprout. That survey found that 78 percent of self-described "liberals" say it is important for brands to take a stand on social or political issues. Only 52 percent of "conservatives" say they feel that way.
In other words, despite the outrage about the new ad campaign from the right, Nike was likely well-aware of what it was doing when it announced Kaepernick as the face of its updated "Just Do It" pitch.
If you see the first ad of the new campaign, the one featuring the quarterback, it far less about sports than it is about individuals who are not the norm. Yes, Serena Williams and Lebron James are featured, but so is a football player with only one hand, a child wrestler with no legs and female boxer sporting a Nike-emblazoned hijab.
Nike is choosing the start of the NFL season to release its new ad, but in the politically divided United States of 2018, Colin Kaepernick is more cultural/political figure than football star. And to Nike's consumers he may look more like a cultural icon than a political villain.