A year ago, Nike inserted itself into a smoldering cultural and political controversy: It unveiled an advertising campaign celebrating Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player who had protested police treatment of African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem.
Almost immediately, there were social media rumblings about a Nike boycott and chatter about whether the ad was a mistake. President Donald Trump said at the time that the athletic apparel giant sent “a terrible message” with the ad, prompting speculation about the potential for a shopper backlash.
Now the impassioned rhetoric and outraged hashtags are all but forgotten. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the ad campaign — or the uproar that followed — hasn’t hurt Nike at all.
Nike remains an extremely popular brand. In UBS’ latest annual survey of U.S. consumers about athletic brands, Nike received the highest “net promoter score,” a common industry metric meant to capture how likely shoppers are to recommend a brand to a friend. UBS’ survey also found that shoppers’ perceptions of Nike have largely improved or remained unchanged since last year’s survey, which was conducted prior to the Kaepernick controversy.
Another investment bank research report shows enthusiasm for Nike footwear. A Stifel report from August analyzed feedback from more than 100 sneaker retailers about what was in demand during the crucial back-to-school shopping season. Nike was the most popular style in 81% of those store checks, up from 67% during the back-to-school rush last year.
It’s no wonder, then, that Nike’s North America sales growth has been solid since the Kaepernick ad. In fact, this division looked much healthier in the fiscal year ended May 31 than it did the year before.
And what about investors? They have stuck by the company, too. Shares are up nearly 8% since the last trading day before the Kaepernick ad was revealed. Nike’s shares generally have moved with the broader S&P 500 Index in the past year — suggesting that when they did retreat, it was more a reflection of larger market or economic concerns.
Finally, it’s worth noting that in the week after the debut of the ad, none of the analysts tracked by Bloomberg downgraded the stock. Today, the company has more buy ratings than it did a year ago. It is in good shape.
Nike’s experience shows that it is plenty possible for a corporation to take a stand on a politically sensitive issue and not get burned — so long as the foray is well-executed and feels authentic to its long-standing image.
It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind as Walmart Inc. undertakes new efforts to curtail sales of ammunition following a mass shooting at one of its stores. Of course, these are not perfect parallels. It’s difficult to measure, but it is possible that Nike remained unscathed in part because it took a stand that was broadly popular with people who already like Nike. Given Walmart’s deep roots in rural America, it may find its new gun policies are not easily embraced by some of its core customers.
Still, both retail giants are beloved by millions and enjoy decades of accumulated goodwill and shopper trust. In Walmart’s case, it is often the most conveniently located and best-priced store in town. Walmart can count on those attributes to overcome any qualms among shoppers about its politics.
Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries.