A History of Nike’s Wokest Celebrity Campaigns

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Nike ’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign.  
The ‘Just Do It’ slogan has become one of the most culturally significant brand campaigns of the 21st century because its message speaks to the American Dream of making something out of nothing. These words explain the philosophy behind the way that Nike managed to evolve from a small start-up to an industry-leading athletic wear brand — so it’s no wonder that rooting for the underdog has always been a core value (and marketing strategy) of their brand.
When Nike announced Colin Kaepernick as the leading spokesperson for their “Just Do It” 30th year anniversary campaign, controversy immediately exploded on social media with Rightists posting photos and videos burning THEIR OWN Nike products. To them, the choice polarized the brand politically and blatantly challenged their own conservative views.  But Nike isn’t new to taking risks and using their platform to speak up for equality. In fact, this approach has been the cornerstone of many of their most successful endorsement deals and marketing campaigns.
Nike is among a series of American brands who are realizing that speaking out about political issues isn’t as faux-pas as it use to be. In fact, it’s become necessary to put your brand’s core values and political views for display to appeal to the ever-growing buying power of liberal millennials and Gen Z’ers. But is Nike just jumping on the bandwagon, or have then been on it?
Here is a look back at Nike’s Wokest Celebrity Endorsement Campaigns of All Time: 

Michael Jordan Makes Nike a Hero Brand for the Black Community

There’s no athlete endorsement that has had a stronger financial or cultural impact than the most iconic sports partnership of all time: Michael Jordan and Nike. Michael Jordan was the first athlete of all time to receive a 7-figure shoe deal and creative input for his shoe design — a groundbreaking partnership that blurred color lines and forever changed the landscape of athlete endorsements . Within their first year on store shelves, Air Jordan generated $100 million in revenue — and it had little to do with their commercial placements. Instead it had everything to do with the NBA banning Air Jordans being worn on the court, granting the brand street cred that struck a cord in hip hop culture and quickly turning them into a status symbol within the community. The sneaker’s cult following only grew stronger when Spike Lee turned Air Jordans into a core storyline in his classic film “Do the Right Thing.” Decades later, Air Jordan still dominates 58% of market share in large part to the Black community’s continued idolization of the classic shoe.
Although Nike’s deal with Michael Jordan wasn’t an outward call for diversity and equality, the implications of this monumental deal spoke for itself. Nike was ahead of their time in seeing past the glass ceiling often placed on Black entertainers by offering Michael Jordan a groundbreaking endorsement that forever changed the status quo.

LeBron James Goes From the Land to Creating the New Standard for Equality

In 2015, Nike made yet another an industry-shifting decision when they signed Lebron James to a Lifetime endorsement deal estimated to be valued at over $1 billion — the first ever deal of its kind. Since then, Lebron James has invested his time, resources and money toward advocating for equality and opportunities, specifically in disenfranchised communities. And his Nike ads have vouched for many of these same ideals.

The Equality Campaign

In 2017, Nike released their ‘Equality’ campaign, created to “encourage people to take the fairness and respect they see in sports and translate them off the field.” The headline commercial  featured an A-list lineup including Lebron James, Serena Williams, Alicia Keys, and Michael B. Jordan, and was shot in James’ stomping grounds in Ohio. The campaign also included a $5 million commitment by Nike to organizations that advance equality in the U.S.

“Come out of Nowhere”
That same year, they released the “Come out of Nowhere” commercial, which depicts a series of diverse young athletes — including a young girl trying to play ball on the court with a group of boys and a young boy who is the only black student at his private school — who break the conventions of what they’re told in society to reach their fullest athletic potential.
HFR x Lebron 16
Just this week, Lebron James took his advocacy for equality to new heights by releasing his newest pair of sneakers in collaboration with Undra Duncan, Fe Noel, and Kimberly Goldson;  a trio of black female designers from Harlem’s Fashion Row — a creative platform that enables multicultural designers to sell and present their collection to key leaders in the fashion industry. The sneaker is the first shoe from a male athlete’s line designed for women by women, and was created to pay homage to the black women that James’ credits for his success. The sneakers was released on September 7th and sold out in 5 minutes.

Serena Williams: A Girl From Compton Speaks Feminism Through Sportwear

In 2003 Serena Williams signed a $55 million 5-year endorsement deal with Nike; the single largest endorsement deal signed by a female athlete at that time. Since then, the partnership has resulted in numerous campaigns advocating for the principles of feminism. The brand has even decided to name what will be the biggest building on their campus after the history-making athlete, scheduled to complete construction in 2019.
In March 2018, Serena Williams was featured in the #UntilWeAllWin commercial, which showcased her in an intimate moment of self reflection about the ways in which the media has continuously bashed her for not succumbing to the conventional standards of womanhood. It ends wit her making the powerful statement, “…There is no wrong way to be a woman.”
Unlimited Greatness 
In one of the most viral Nike ads ever, the high and lows of Serena William’s career are described through singular adjectives panning across the screen. The commercial initially ends with the statement “Greatest female athlete ever,” then changes to “Greatest athlete ever;” a powerful statement that challenges the notion that a female athlete can not be the greatest of all time, rather than just the greatest within the confinements of her gender.
Compton Girls
Born and bred in Compton, Serena Willams always cites her hometown as an instrumental part of her success. The predominantly black city of Compton has been stereotyped as “ghetto” and one of the most dangerous cities in America for decades. Nike was both clever and intentful in shouting out Williams’ city in the ad, aiming to inspire disenfranchised youth by showing them an icon who came from the same place as them who now represents the pinnacle of success.
Serena Williams x Virgil Abloh
When Serena William’s now-iconic Wakanda inspired catsuit was banned from the French Open by French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, it didn’t take long for Nike to step in and take action.
Within days, they released an ad that said, “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.” Shortly after, she appeared on the court at the US Open sporting a bodysuit tutu that immediately went viral — designed by black designer Virgil Abloh for Nike.
Nike’s gutsy approach to marketing speaks to the power and responsibiltiy that fashion, in all its forms, has to speak to the message of equality in society. While some brands are still struggling to approach political marketing aka “woke-washing” in an authentic way, Nike is winning because they aren’t new to this — they’re true to it.
Gabriella Layne

Editor-in-Chief of The Strut Magazine

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