Just Live It
For two years, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been a lightning rod in American culture – symbolizing a heroic stance for justice to some and disrespect for the flag to others.
By signing Kaepernick to an endorsement contract, Nike has made a risky and controversial decision – the kind that are rare for big corporations today.
Critics came at Nike from both directions. Kaepernick-haters, viewing Nike’s move as more disrespect for the American flag, made a public display of burning Nike shoes and cutting the famous swoosh from their clothes. Others, noting that Kaepernick’s jersey is already a big seller for Nike, saw the decision as less about idealism and more about the profit motive.
Ultimately, every decision a corporation makes is a business decision. But was this the right decision for Nike?
Some point to the fact that shares fell upon the announcement. Others point out Nike received millions in free advertising. There’s a more important measure than money, however. Emotionally-charged decisions like this are actually about values. That’s why it matters to employees, customers, critics and shareholders.
The only way to judge Nike over this is to determine whether the decision made sense according to its values. If the decision violates Nike’s values, then it was opportunistic and craven. If the decision honors Nike’s values, then it was correct.
Return with me to 1964, when Nike co-founders, Bill Bowerman & Phil Knight, created their athletic footwear and sold it out of a Winnebago. They took pride in being a rebellious upstart company in a world of establishment shoe businesses. That’s what created the DNA of the Nike culture.
As Nike flourished, Bowerman and Knight focused on maintaining that reputation by creating an extremely committed workforce. Those employees thrived in that culture.
The culture was built on very clear values: Performance, Authenticity, Innovation, and Sustainability. In its marketing, Nike partnered with athletes who embodied that spirit. The concept was to “create heroes”. Heroes are people who exemplify the mission of Nike: ‘To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.*” In Nike’s view, heroes can be ordinary people who faced adversity, persisted anyway, and became successful against all the odds.
Nike has partnered with some amazing athletes over the years, such as Steve Prefontaine and Michael Jordan. Others, such as Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong, did not live up to Nike’s ideals and got dropped, though Woods is now back.
The Just Do It Campaign
Colin Kaepernick signed with Nike in 2011 when he was an active NFL quarterback. Then, moved by the deaths of young black men by police, he began to protest that injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.
The controversial practice spread throughout the league and became a political sore spot. Kaepernick’s play fell off, however, and he got cut from the 49ers. He couldn’t find a job with any other NFL team and later sued the league, claiming he’d been blacklisted.
Though he was dropped by the NFL, Nike stuck with Kaepernick. Now, even though tensions with the NFL and social criticism continues, Nike has decided to feature Kaepernick in the 30thanniversary of its famous Just Do It advertising campaign.
This puts Nike at odds with its biggest partner - the NFL. So why did they do it? It goes back to Nike’s DNA. Nike prizes heroes who are rebels that thrive despite adversity and stand up for what they believe in.
Values are not situational. Values are the ethical barometer that define right from wrong. Violating a value puts an organization into stress and conflict. The fact that Nike employees and athlete-partners support the decision means it is in line with Nike’s values.
Consistently demonstrated values create predictability for stakeholders and employees. Employees know how colleagues and managers will act. The company becomes a safe place to work. People trust in one another and have confidence in their leadership. In short, a company where words and deeds line up establishes the conditions for a strong culture.
Customer, suppliers, or consumer do not determine the values of a company. Customers migrate to the products and services of a company because of the consistency of the work of the employees.
Values Before Profit Always
Companies strive to make money but they don’t get there without people who are committed to that success. By sticking with an athlete-partner under tremendous pressure for taking a stand, Nike is showing that it is living its values regardless of the cost to the business. This is the best decision it could make to reinforce a strong culture and create a legendary moment that will teach Nike employees and customers for generations to come.
When companies put profit before values, they lose the support of their employees. Without employee engagement and commitment companies falter and fail.
Culture is most robust when there is no disconnect between employee experience and the company values. This alignment between word and action ensures that a culture stays special and unique; creating a real competitive advantage.
Today, too many firms have aspirational or situational values. In a different universe, a company like Nike would claim it backs athletes who stand for something, but it would find an excuse to avoid making the tough business choice.
Employees might intellectually understand such a decision, but they would still find it emotionally stressful and confusing. A real value, truly held, withstands pressure and gets applied universally.
Many companies sacrifice their values because they say, “The customer is always right.” To those companies, the sight of customers burning Nike shoes would be a disaster. But the covenant between employee and company is more important than the customer. Customers migrate to products and services for their own reasons. Truly loyal customers believe in the company’s values and will support the company that lives by those values, though good times and bad.
It’s Never Too Late to Take a Stand
Is Nike’s advertising campaign a risk to the business? Possibly. But I applaud the company for putting its values first, ahead of that risk.
The leadership of any company would do well to study Nike’s example. Live your own authentic values, even if it means sacrificing short-term profits. Better yet, find a meaningful and authentic way to demonstrate that commitment by sacrificing comfort and the easy path.
Not every company always does the right thing. Nike, itself, has faltered notably before. It received worthy criticism for harsh work conditions in overseas factories and, more recently, for having a “boys’ club” culture that was toxic for women. In the past few years Nike has begun to make a concerted effort to address and mitigate these issues.
In the final assessment, supporting Kaepernick was not a mistake because it demonstrated and reinforced Nike’s values for the world, for its athlete partners, and, most importantly, for its people.
David has 30 years of experience helping companies to be more values focused. He has worked with leaders aligning strategy to values. By helping companies focus on desired value-behaviours he enables firms to become more talent-driven. David’s book Inside the Box details how companies have risen and fallen based on putting values before profits. You can download, for free, the Introduction and Chapter 1 of the book by following this link.