“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just Do It.” The now famous Nike advert released in 2018 was centered around professional NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick who controversially took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and was subsequently blacklisted from the NFL because of it. It was believed by some to be a pivotal moment: Nike was choosing the side of social justice and free speech over one of its largest business partners, the NFL.
The move was controversial, causing some to burn their Nike shoes or cut the iconic swoosh of their socks. It even caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who tweeted that Nike was “getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts.” In actuality, Nike’s stock rose 5% after the advert was released – earning the company around $6 billion. Does Nike truly support social justice? Freedom of speech? Or was it a carefully calculated marketing decision as they profit off of being a “woke” brand?
This past June, brands across America embraced Pride Month with rainbow-colored company logos and LGBT+ marketing campaigns. Nike itself created a 2019 BETRUE collection and donated to a number of organisations and causes supporting the LGBT+ community. While these brands were trying their best to show how open-minded and supportive of LGBT+ issues they are, many came across as pandering and simply tried to commercialize Pride. This begs the question, would brands such as Nike be so supportive of Pride if there was no money to be made off it?
Whether it’s supporting Colin Kaepernick or Pride Month, Nike has profited at every step. It’s easy to take a stand when there’s little to no consequence; it’s much harder to do so when a true cost is presented. Nike’s activism will always come across as disingenuous until it chooses its beliefs over its bottom line.
Enter the Hong Kong protests. The Hong Kong protests began in June after a bill was proposed allowing China to extradite people in Hong Kong despite the “one country, two systems” principle. Having a separate legal and administrative system from mainland China, Hong Kong residents currently enjoy freedom of assembly and freedom of speech and fear that China is slowly tightening its grasp on the region. Despite the proposed extradition bill being removed in September, the protests have continued with many calling for democracy in Hong Kong.
China is one of Nike’s largest markets and accounts for nearly 17% of Nike’s total sales. Nike has remained largely silent on the issue of Hong Kong, not wanting to upset its fastest growing market and risk its market share there. When Houston Rocket’s general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong democracy protests, the Chinese Basketball Association suspended their relationship with the Rockets. Nike was quick to pull Houston Rocket’s merchandise out of Nike stores in several Chinese cities. In a similar vein, Nike cancelled a line of shoes by designer Jun Takahashi after he supported the protest of the extradition bill.
In the face of Hong Kong protest, Nike had the chance to take a stand, to believe in democracy and free speech, yet this stance would require risking its entire Chinese market. Nike would love to sit on the fence, yet pressure from Beijing has forced Nike to show its true colours. Like most American brands, Nike’s primary concern is still its bottom line.
Does Nike believe in social justice? In freedom of speech? Are they willing the sacrifice everything? Or has Nike’s “wokeness” finally been revealed for what it truly is?
Image Source: Nike
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist.