Why Nike would find it hard to emulate the Kaepernick approach in Japan

You can love it or you can hate it, but there’s no denying that Nike’s latest iteration of the Just Do It campaign is the most culturally significant piece of U.S. advertising in many years. The greyscale portrait of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously “took a knee” instead of standing during the U.S. national anthem in 2016, marks the 30th anniversary of the sportswear giant’s slogan. The copy simply reads, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” I think it’ll be remembered alongside Apple’s 1984 “Big Brother” ad as one of the most powerful disrupters in advertising history.

The immediate blowback has been intense. Images of burning Nike shoes have spread on the internet along with furious consumer posts hashtagged “#BoycottNike.”

In one of the more bizarre parodies, Donald Trump Jr. replaced Kaepernick’s face with that of the president, who has heaped scorn on the athlete and Nike as well as the National Football League. The younger Trump kept the copy intact and wrote on Instagram, “There, fixed it for you. #maga.”


Meanwhile, Nike’s stock slipped 4% after the endorsement began, a market cap loss of $3.75 billion. The campaign, which might include a Kaepernick apparel line, could put Nike at odds with the NFL after they agreed to extend their partnership in an eight-year deal for uniforms and other apparel in March.

Nike has probably alienated a significant chunk of its consumer base, but I think it will turn out to have been a brilliant move in terms of brand strategy. Timed to the start of the NFL regular season, the image has generated multi-platform exposure worth $163.5 million, according to Apex Marketing, and it’s created an unprecedented buzz around the world. When I scroll through my social media feeds, I see that less than a week since it began, support for the campaign seems stronger than criticism.

But beyond the enormous short-term sensation that the campaign has generated, Nike is making a clear statement about who it is and the mindset it allies with—and this is not in alignment with a large proportion of the American population. This is a gutsy move for a market leader, which necessarily needs to be broadly appealing to maintain its share. Finding the edge is something we tend to associate with small, challenger brands.

However, to be truly successful, brands have to stand for something important and, importantly, something that rival brands do not. That’s never been more true than today. Global brands are constantly under threat from small disrupters, making risk aversion a risk in itself. To show that they’re engaged with society and not simply obsessed with turning a profit, we’ve seen brands like Starbucks at key junctures stand up for what they believe in, stake out the moral high ground, and then continue to grow.

With the Kaepernick endorsement, Nike is doing what it believes in and reaffirming its core values of inspiring people everywhere. I would suggest that it’s also effectively saying its competitors don’t believe in something and aren’t prepared to sacrifice everything. In that sense, it’s calling out dominant brands everywhere for their greatest sin: being bland or, worse, self-serving.

Nike’s actions in the U.S. couldn’t be more different than what would support a winning strategy here in Japan. Conflict and controversy is poison in Japanese branding and wider society. The mind boggles as to what the Japanese version of this campaign would look like. Would Nike attempt a localised approach here with Japanese heroes? I think it unlikely, though I’m watching with interest.

Japanese culture puts a premium on social harmony and respect for conventions. Celebrities who invite scandal (or just happen upon it) more often than not meet the end of their careers. Nike’s roster of athletes who have done endorsements with it in Japan is predictably safe; only pitcher Yu Darvish stands out, but only because of his Iranian-Japanese background. Japan is simply nowhere near being at a point where controversy is a feasible strategy. The way to play it here might be more like: Just Respect It.

Be that as it may, it doesn’t mean that branding in Japan isn’t fraught with complex decisions and there aren’t any chances to break through. The need to work within cultural boundaries doesn’t preclude the necessity of standing for something clear and thereby causing a reappraisal of the other players in the market. This is especially true for brands working on a successful Japan market entry.

Regardless, to the extent that it plays in Japan, Nike’s move with Kaepernick is likely to have a positive effect on its image here. It’s demonstrating its relevance to the American cultural conversation—which gives it cred in this market. Who says rules can’t be broken? As long as they’re not Japanese rules.

All in all, it’s wonderful to see the world’s largest sportswear maker pull off a very brave move with Kaepernick, and my hat’s off to them for it. There may be short-term pain, but I think this is a form of creative destruction that will ultimately pay off and buoy the Swoosh to greater heights—even in Japan.  

Dominic Carter is CEO of CarterJMRN K.K., a full-service qualitative and quantitative market research and strategic consulting firm headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. He has spent over 20 years helping clients to unmask the Japanese consumer.

Let's Talk