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Brand Storytelling With Content Marketing, Colin Kaepernick And Nike

Brand storytelling with content marketing, Colin Kaepernick and Nike

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign is perhaps 2018’s highest profile example of brand storytelling. And while multi-million dollar, celebrity-vehicle campaigns can feel like something happening on another planet, there are some good lessons here for regular content marketers who want to leverage storytelling for their own brands.

In this post, we’ll pick out our 3 takeaways from the Kaepernick-fronted Dream Crazy campaign, focussing on the storytelling elements. But let’s start with a quick definition of what we mean by “brand storytelling” and why it matters to your content marketing strategy.

What is brand storytelling?

Brand storytelling is about taking the “why” behind your business and using it to create interesting, engaging and authentic content. The aim is to build a genuine bond with your target audience that leads not just to short-term sales but to long-term loyalty. Brand stories help your customers stick with you not just because they like your products, but because they identify with you and how you present yourself to the world.

How does brand storytelling help your bottom line?

Like content marketing more generally brand storytelling can be effective at every stage of the sales funnel. From introducing your business to people for the very first time to helping them choose you over the competition when they make a purchase decision, the stories you create and share really matter.

Where’s the brand story in Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign?

If you take a cynical view of global sportswear brands attaching themselves to zeitgeist-topping superstars, then Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign is opportunistic, or even exploitative. After all, Nike kits out all 32 teams in the NFL, the very organisation Kaepernick claims has blacklisted him over his national anthem protests. And according to the New York Times, Nike considered dropping him as recently as last year.

But the Dream Crazy ad that Kaepernick narrates taps into a common theme in Nike’s advertising and marketing strategy. Look back at previous campaigns and you’ll see heroes facing down adversity. That hero might be a famous sports star like Kaepernick or Serena Williams or Neymar.

Often though the hero of the story is someone easier for Nike’s regular customers to identify with. The idea is to induce an emotional response and not always a positive one. Nike ads can be inspiring but they can also make you feel guilty, lazy and inadequate. Don’t be such a loser. Get off the sofa, buy some new running shoes and be the hero of the story.

The Kaepernick campaign has all these elements. Kaepernick is the hero. The man who gave up a gilded career as a professional football player to fight for a just cause. To paraphrase the tagline of the campaign, he believed in something even though it meant sacrificing everything. He faced challenges – the loss of his career, death threats, presidential tweets – and is living the hero’s journey, a narrative arc that has served traditional storytellers for centuries.

The hero's journey

3 brand storytelling takeaways from Nike and Colin Kaepernick

So. what can us real-world content marketers learn from Nike’s Kaepernick campaign? Here are our 3 takeaways:

1. Emotive content generates a response (but not always a good one)

Something we can cling on to while waiting to be replaced by robots is that we’re emotional beings. How we feel has a significant bearing on how we act. This means content that triggers an emotional response can capture the attention of your target audience and prompt them to take action.

A 2015 study featured in the Journal of Marketing Research found that people who saw pictures of celebrities they liked were more inclined to buy nearby products even if they were not being directly endorsed or promoted. But seeing celebrities they didn’t like had the opposite effect.

Nike knew that a marketing campaign built around Colin Kaepernick would trigger both positive and negative emotions. While some were burning their own Nike gear on social media in protest, a great many more were buying Kaepernick’s new line of #IMWITHKAP jerseys, which sold out a few hours after they launched.

2. Some stories never get old (even after 30 years)

Not everyone buys Nike products. Some people don’t like how Nike operates as a business. But the success of its brand-building efforts are impossible to ignore. According to Forbes, the business magazine, Nike’s brand ranks 18th most valuable globally and is number one in apparel.

The consistency of the stories Nike tells in its advertising and marketing campaigns has been a huge part of this success. Dream Crazy marked the 30th anniversary of Nike’s iconic “Just Do It” campaign, which launched the tagline the company still uses today.

Look back three decades to the very first Just Do It ad and you’ll see those familiar themes we highlighted earlier in this post. The guy is 80. He runs 17 miles every day. Maybe you should do that too. In some new trainers.

Now, Nike obviously has the money to keep telling that story, And not just on some backwater company blog. They can put it on television, splurge millions on social media ads and pay for celebrity endorsements. But consistency in brand storytelling applies to your real world campaigns too.

If you’re more experienced, more local, more environmentally-friendly than the competition, that needs to be a recurring theme in the content you create. It is only by repeating consistent messaging that you will get your audience to associate you with the themes you care about.

3. Brand stories always have to be true (or at least believable)

Critics of Colin Kaepernick would argue that he was an unremarkable quarterback who had lost his starting place before his kneeling protests gained him notoriety and two million followers on Twitter. Has a millionaire former football player fronting a marketing campaign for the 18th most valuable brand in the world really sacrificed everything?

His supporters would counter that at 30, Kaepernick could have expected at least one more highly lucrative contract. And while it’s true Kaepernick was no Tom Brady he was still an elite athlete who played in a Superbowl and was deemed worthy of a USD 126 million contract just four years ago.

The dedication and the emotional and physical toll required to make it to the NFL should never be underestimated. Once achieved, only the tiny minority who have been among the very best in their field know what it’s like to have that taken away. To not be able to do the one thing you’re best at is indeed a significant sacrifice.

Where you stand on that argument will determine how you feel about Colin Kaepernick’s part in Nike’s brand story. He is either the hero or the villain. Early indications from sales and the free media Nike has earned would suggest this calculated risk has paid off. Kaepernick has become a focal point of the resistance to the resurgent right under the Trump presidency. It would seem that people are either willing to accept or ignore Nike writing in a part for itself.

The brand’s association with the NFL, while contradictory in many ways, has also helped make Nike’s Kaepernick story more authentic. In the viral images of his kneeling protest Kaepernick’s uniform and helmet are adorned with the Nike swoosh. In many ways it felt like Nike was sponsoring his fight against social injustice before Dream Crazy.

The takeaway here for any brands using storytelling is that the story – and their part in it – has to be believable. The story of your brand isn’t just something for your blog and your social media. It has to be evident in how you run your business every day.

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