Colin Kaepernick: Culture in Action — and What We Can Learn From Nike

We are passionate about the importance of understanding how culture operates in our worlds. Culture is at the heart of our Cultural Framing model, designed to intentionally uncover cultural dynamics that affect consumers’ hearts, heads, and wallets.

Culture is complicated. It’s nuanced and requires discernment, subjectivity, and a commitment to go deep. It’s not for everyone, but as an anthropologist and a culture fanatic, it’s something I hold very dear.

We define culture as “socially-created meaning.” This is a distillation of a definition offered by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his groundbreaking book of essays, The Interpretation of Cultures[1]”. His definition is a little complex. And because culture can be so complicated, it’s helpful to look for real-world examples of culture in action.

Colin Kaepernick is a very relevant example, and Nike (as this goes to press) is reaping the financial rewards of adeptly tapping into culture by making him the face of their 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. Kaepernick is a terrific illustration of how socially-created meaning isn’t monolithic or static. It varies from group to group, from context to context, from moment to moment. And brands that correctly identify the meaning that best resonates with the audience enjoy stronger brands, better ad performance, and (as in the case of Nike) increased sales and product adoption.

Colin Kaepernick and “Just Do It”

A quick summary:

Colin Kaepernick was a standout collegiate athlete, breaking records and establishing an impressive resume while playing football at the University of Nevada. He was drafted as a backup quarterback in the 2011 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He became the starting quarterback mid-season in 2012,[2]” and his career with the 49ers was, many might say, inconsistent — sometimes great, sometimes not-so-great.

During the third pre-season game of the 2016 season, Kaepernick sat down on the sidelines rather than follow tradition and stand during the singing of the American national anthem. He explained this decision in the context of what he saw as ongoing and systematic police brutality against people of color in the U.S.[3]

At the end of the 2016 season, Kaepernick was released by the San Francisco 49ers. He has remained unsigned since. However, the trend he began of sitting (or, subsequently, kneeling) during the national anthem has become a controversial media topic, leading to political, social, and economic debates about the propriety and appropriateness of the protest action.

In light of this controversy, Nike’s decision to make him the face of such a significant campaign is important. Nike seems to understand the social meaning around Kaepernick. The company gives Kaepernick a prominent placement alongside the text, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Nike’s stock surged, with CEO Mark Parker later estimating that the ad had increased Nike’s market value by $6 billion.[4]” Though many have protested Nike’s alignment with Kaepernick, Nike seems to have correctly gauged the interests and passions of their target audience.

The many meanings of Colin Kaepernick

We wanted to better understand what Colin Kaepernick stands for among the general market, so we leveraged our Usurv platform and Maru/Blue’s proprietary Springboard America panel to identify the culture — the socially-created meaning — of Colin Kaepernick.

During the week of September 17, 2018, we surveyed a nationally-representative community of American consumers to better understand what Kaepernick means to them. We surveyed 1,573 consumers and asked about their awareness of Colin Kaepernick and the words they do, or don’t, associate with him. These represented positive words (Leader, Brave, Role Model, Hero, etc.) and negative (Troublemaker, Anger, Fake, Coward, Traitor, etc.).

From the results, it’s clear that Kaepernick “means” different things to different people — that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The cultural conversation around him is apparent in the creation and critical response to the advertisement. And our data tells a story that Nike likely knew in choosing to make Kaepernick the face of their new campaign:

  • Young consumers (ages 18–34) overwhelmingly see Kaepernick in a positive, heroic light. When compared to older people (ages 35–54 and 55+) and non-fans of Nike, they are more likely to associate him with words like “Leader,” “Brave,” “Inspirational,” and “Hero.”
  • In contrast, older respondents associate negative or critical words with Kaepernick, such as “Troublemaker,” “Fake,” “Coward,” and “Traitor.”

In looking at the data in the context of the campaign, it seems very plausible that Nike knew how their audience felt, and effectively targeted younger consumers with a youth-oriented, inspiring ad that leverages their feelings about Kaepernick.

Analysis published by AdWeek puts Nike’s decision in context:

“…the brand captured lightning in a bottle by taking a clear position on a divisive sociopolitical topic at a moment that guaranteed maximum cultural impact while accepting that the work would alienate some consumers… This strategy relied more heavily on emotionally resonant creative than any combination of data points.”[5]

Culture is King

This doesn’t invalidate the importance of data and clearly-articulated insights that drive creative execution, product ideation, and marketing strategies. In fact, it reinforces the value of data and insights. It’s clear that Nike understands — very, very well — their target audience.

Crucially, they understand the cultural meaning that has arisen around this controversial figure who speaks so clearly and starkly to an issue of such great importance to Nike’s audience. And by aligning the brand with the controversy, Nike demonstrated the power of cultural context and the resonance of speaking directly to deep meaning.

To learn more about our perspective on cultural framing and how it can deliver the market insights you need, contact us.

[1]Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York. Geertz defines culture as a semiotic concept open to interpretation. Technically, he calls it “the webs of significance he [sic] has spun…and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” (emphasis added) (p.5)


[3]Wyche, Steve. “Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem” (August 27, 2016). , accessed 10/01/18

[4]Source: , accessed 10/01/18

[5]Coffee, Patrick. “How Nike’s $6 Billion Colin Kaepernick Campaign Put the Focus Back on Big Creative Ideas” (September 30, 2018), AdWeek

This article was originally posted on the Maru/Matchbox blog.




Maru helps its clients make informed decisions in real-time by combining proprietorial software, deep industry experience, and unique IP in system 1 apps.

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