Nearly a month after Colin Kaepernick was revealed as the face of Nike’s groundbreaking new advertising campaign, the unveiling video has garnered more than 80 million views on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
The ads have sent Kaepernick into a new realm of celebrity, quickly becoming among the most talked-about and successful campaigns in recent years. And they have allowed Nike, which has a history of provocative marketing campaigns, to capitalize on the so-called Resistance movement in a way it only recently realized it could.
They are also yet another vehicle for Kaepernick to raise his own profile as a sort of civil rights entrepreneur unlike anyone before has, certainly in sports. He has signed deals to write a book — which is set to be published next year and will be accompanied by a speaking tour — and to develop a comedy series.
But it almost didn’t happen. In the summer of 2017, a debate raged in Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., over whether to cut loose the controversial, unemployed quarterback — and the company very nearly did, according to two individuals with knowledge of the discussions who requested anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements each has with Nike.
When the company did decide to embrace the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, it risked angering the National Football League, a Nike partner since 2012, but the company ultimately decided it was a risk worth taking, given the credibility the company would gain with the young, urban market it has long targeted.
Kaepernick ignited a national discourse in 2016 when he began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games to protest racism, social inequality and police brutality. He left the 49ers after the 2016 season and became a free agent, but executives throughout the N.F.L. considered him radioactive because of his on-field protests, which drew vocal criticism from President Trump, and no team signed him.
That left Nike’s sports marketing group flummoxed. There seemed to be little they could do with a lightning-rod professional football player who was not playing football.
Before the company severed ties with Kaepernick, though, its top communications executive persuaded his colleagues to reverse course because of the potential for negative publicity. Kaepernick would remain on Nike’s roster of sponsored athletes — though he was largely ignored for nearly a year.
Through interviews with current and former Nike employees, individuals close to Kaepernick, analysts and others involved with the ad campaign, a picture emerged of Nike’s about-face in which the company concluded that getting behind Kaepernick’s crusade, at the urging of its longtime advertising firm, made good business sense despite the risk of angering the N.F.L.
The risk appears to have paid off. Late Tuesday, Mark Parker, the chief executive of Nike, told Wall Street analysts on the company’s quarterly earnings call that the campaign had yielded “record engagement with the brand.”
“We feel actually very good and are very proud of the work we’ve been doing,” Parker said. “We know it’s resonated actually quite strongly with consumers.”
The campaign also earned Nike a measure of good will in the wake of reports by The New York Times and other outlets earlier this year that Nike had a hostile and abusive work environment for women. In August, two women filed a lawsuit against the company seeking class-action status claiming pay inequality and gender discrimination.
In upgrading the company’s stock, one Wall Street analyst called the campaign “a stroke of genius.” In a mid-September note to clients, Camilo Lyon, an analyst at the financial services firm Canaccord Genuity, wrote that Nike had been “courageous” in taking a stand “in support of a social issue where few (if any) companies have of late.” He added that the campaign “spoke to Nike’s core consumers in a very Nike-esque, provocative way that shows it understands them and the issues that matter to them.” Last week, Nike’s stock closed at an all-time high of more than $85 a share.
KeJuan Wilkins, a spokesman for Nike, acknowledged in an email that the company had robust discussions about Kaepernick. “It would be normal for a number of people to offer different perspectives.” Wilkins wrote. “In keeping with Nike’s mission, any final decisions are made as a group.”
Kaepernick, who declined to be interviewed for this article, kicked off the campaign by tweeting a stark black-and-white, close-up photo of his face on Sept. 3. Overlaid on the photo was the Nike swoosh logo and the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The image went up on billboards in San Francisco and New York. The next day, Nike released a two-minute video titled “Dream Crazy,” narrated by Kaepernick, who appears late in the video, dramatically urging viewers to strive to make their mark on the world.
But the starring role for Kaepernick represents a big reversal in his relationship with Nike. Earlier this year, Nike’s decision to keep him within its stable of sponsored athletes without using him had prompted lawyers for Kaepernick to tell the company it was not living up to its contractual obligations, according to two individuals involved in the discussions who requested anonymity because of the confidential nature of the talks.
Nike’s relationship with Kaepernick began in 2011, after the 49ers drafted him, and continued through his tumultuous tenure with the team that included a Super Bowl, benchings, injuries, and the kneeling controversy.
In August 2016, during a wave of shootings of unarmed African-American men by the police, Kaepernick began sitting, and later kneeling, on the sidelines while the national anthem played before 49ers games. He explained that he was trying to give voice to those who did not have one.
Soon teammates, players from other teams, and even athletes in other sports joined Kaepernick in kneeling, locking arms or raising fists in support of his message.
Knowing the 49ers were planning to cut him, Kaepernick opted out of his contract in the spring of 2017. When no other team signed him, Nike’s top marketing officials realized they had no idea what to do with him: He didn’t have a team, so they couldn’t put his name on any team gear.
In October, Kaepernick sued the N.F.L., charging that owners had colluded to keep him from playing in the league. Baffled, top executives in Nike’s sports marketing group decided to end the company’s contract with him, according to a former employee who requested anonymity because of a nondisclosure agreement.
Then Nigel Powell, the longtime head of communications for Nike, learned of the decision and “went ballistic,” the former employee said.
Powell argued that Nike would face backlash from the media and consumers if it was seen as siding with the N.F.L. rather than Kaepernick. And Nike, along with most apparel companies, is desperate to attract urban youth who increasingly look up to Kaepernick; the largely white, older N.F.L. fans angry at the league over the protests are not a priority for those companies, analysts say.
Wilkins, the Nike spokesman, declined to discuss which Nike employees came down on which side of the Kaepernick debate, saying only that company protocols involve discussions, shared opinions and then a collective unit makes a decision.
Powell ultimately won out, and Kaepernick stayed on Nike’s roster with a contract that was set to expire in early 2019. But his image still did not appear on any Nike advertisements, and his name was not on any apparel, even as his stature as a civil rights figure grew. GQ named him its Citizen of the Year, and organizations like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union honored him.
While Wilkins said sponsorship agreements don’t guarantee an appearance in a campaign or a product, Kaepernick’s legal team disagreed. They encouraged Nike to begin fulfilling its contractual obligations to him. His team also asked to begin negotiations for a new agreement.
Kaepernick’s book and film deals showed there was still a market for him. The president of Adidas’s North American division said in April he might be interested in signing the former quarterback.
After a series of messages and phone conversations throughout the spring, Nike executives and Kaepernick’s representatives gathered in New York City on June 18. Nike executives agreed there might be a role for him to play with the company. For Nike, there was only one problem — what to do about the N.F.L.
In 2012, Nike committed to paying a reported $220 million annually for five years to emblazon its signature swoosh on all jerseys and officially licensed clothing sold to fans.
The deal between Nike, the West Coast company known for pushing the envelope, and the tradition-loving N.F.L. has since been altered. The two sides announced a 10-year extension of the deal in March, but after 2020, Nike will only produce clothing worn on the field. It will no longer produce N.F.L. merchandise sold to consumers. That meant the N.F.L., already a small slice of Nike’s business, was going to shrink further.
Still, within the sports industry, the N.F.L. has a reputation for ensuring its corporate partners do what it wants. It has long pressured broadcasters to cover the sport more positively and has the right to reject advertisements during the Super Bowl.
So when Wieden & Kennedy, Nike’s ad agency for more than three decades, urged the company earlier this year to make the N.F.L.’s ultimate persona non grata the face of its “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign, Nike had to weigh the potential repercussions.
The advertising firm, which forged its reputation back in the 1980s when it crafted Nike’s Michael Jordan ads with Spike Lee, made it clear that Kaepernick could provide real value. With the N.F.L. set to become a less important partner and its deal with the league locked up until 2028, Nike decided to listen.
The N.F.L. declined to comment. Wieden & Kennedy referred requests for comment to Nike. Its employees were less discreet.
Wieden & Kennedy “pushed to use Colin Kaepernick as the face of the 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign,” a designer at the firm wrote in September on a website showcasing his work. He added: “Nike agreed to it. We made it. Colin posted it. People lost it.”
According to people who worked on the campaign, Kaepernick’s role came together rather quickly, with significant elements completed just weeks before the release. Wieden & Kennedy didn’t finalize the agreement for the edited image of Kaepernick with text until Aug. 27, and Lacey Baker, a skateboarder featured in the ad, said Nike did not reach out to her until mid-August.
“I was a little in disbelief that they were actually doing it,” said the photographer Martin Schoeller, who took the photo used in the ad for GQ. “Corporations making a political statement is the opposite of what you usually want in marketing.”
Wilkins, the Nike spokesman, said it was not uncommon for the company’s ads to undergo changes until right before the release.
“The important thing,” he said, “is that we’re using Colin because we consider him one of the most inspirational athletes of his generation.”