Leadership or Marketing?

There is increasing interest in corporate social activism, which some have inaccurately dubbed “the culture wars.” Yes, we are in polarizing political times, but some activities cited as social activism might be better described as savvy brand management. Nike’s anniversary “Just Do It” campaign is a strategic marketing choice, but not necessarily corporate civic leadership. The more compelling aspect of the Nike campaign story is the personal leadership choice made by Colin Kaepernick as an NFL football player.

First, a few observations to support this perspective about Nike’s decision. “The world is our community. We believe in the power of sport to move the world.” This is a core Nike value, espoused on its corporate website. Given this, and Nike’s history of edgy advertising, the choice of Colin Kaepernick as spokesperson is smart marketing. Market forces are driving a resurgence of ethics in corporate decision-making in more obvious ways recently. According to a 2012 BCG study, millennials say they are more likely to buy a product supporting a good cause.[i] Nike is undoubtedly hoping to tap that sentiment.

More recent research confirms that millennials, comprising a significant portion of consumer and employee markets, want to see corporations engage in social issues. This might explain choices made by other companies, like Levi Strauss’ decision to contribute institutional resources in support of gun control, which signals that some corporations will lead when government does not.

Civic engagement by companies and business leaders has been a fact of American business life for many decades. Just ask any D.C. lobbyist or search the annals of business history. In an oft-cited 1949 Harvard Business Review classic, “Business Responsibilities in an Uncertain World,” Donald David advocated that business executives engage in social issues.[ii] (He also encouraged the appointment of a “major officer” of the corporation to be its conscience, a sign that ethics is a business need that has also been around for a long time.[iii] ) As the norms and expectations of society change, leaders shift their focus in response.

Each of us, whether we are the corporation’s CEO or a volunteer for a local nonprofit, must decide regularly if the values of institutions we are connected to match ours. We can choose to calibrate our participation, or not, based on that assessment. No one besides Colin Kaepernick can truly understand his motivations in choosing first to sit, and then to kneel, during the National Anthem before NFL football games. This was point was reinforced while I was gathering input on this topic and an associate declined to comment, explaining he felt it was unethical to speak about Kaepernick’s protest because he can’t be 100 percent sure of Kaepernick’s motivation. That kind of reticence in a social media-bathed, opinionated world is an example of personal leadership itself, and a refreshing reminder that commentary is a choice.

The observation sent me in search of Kaepernick’s own words as the best proxy for his thought process, if not necessarily a fully accurate revelation of his motivations. His words have been few, choosing as he has to remain quiet during much of the furor that followed his initial decision to sit out the country’s anthem. Though it complicated his professional life, if we are to believe his own words, he protested to advance a national dialogue on race, and not a professional football issue. That he chose to make the statement at work might signal his awareness of the platform the professional football field provides. Or something else. Only he can know.

His words, spoken in an acceptance speech as the 2018 Ambassador of Conscience from Amnesty International, are remarkable. He repeats throughout his comments that love for people is at the root of his resistance to police violence and systemic forms of racialized hate and oppression in a country that claims to offer freedom and justice for all. He says he is for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole and advocates for collective love combating forms of racialized hate.

Changing systemic forms of discrimination is challenging, long-term work. It is work that transcends any one person’s career or protest and signals a willingness to put a common good above personal interest. Regardless of the reason, it will take many people willing to do so to end systemic discrimination. I am grateful Colin Kaepernick is one of them.


[i] The Millennial Consumer, Debunking Stereotypes, The Boston Consulting Group, April 2012, http://img-stg.bcg.com/BCG_The_Millennial_Consumer_Apr_2012%20(3)_tcm9-104741.pdf

[ii] Donald K. David, “Business Responsibilities in an Uncertain World,” Harvard Business Review, XXVII, supplement (May, 1949), 1-8

[iii] The Social Responsibilities of Business, Company and Community, 1900-1960, Morrell Heald, 1970.


“Get 20% discount on your first 3 orders with us” Use coupon: GET20