On Message: What NGOs can learn from Nike

A screencap from American football player Colin Kaepernick’s Twitter account.

Last week, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback-turned-political-activist Colin Kaepernick launched the 30th anniversary of Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan in the most 2018 way possible: With a single tweet

As a communicator, I was intrigued by the ad. It’s bold. It’s timely. It’s already sparked a lot of think pieces. While responses to the ad have crossed the spectrum — positive, negative, and just outright hilarious — there are some key lessons that communicators can take from the brand’s approach.

I sat down with my colleague Kate Midden for our latest episode of Long Story Short to talk about the ad — and what it can teach us as global development communicators.

Here are my four takeaways.

1. Know your audience

When I first saw the Nike ad while scrolling through Instagram, I knew immediately who the ad was appealing to. How do I know this? Two words: Soft identities.

A term coined by our friends at Atlantic 57, soft identities refers to a nuanced understanding of audiences that looks beyond hard demographics  and speaks to an individual’s motivations, values, and perceptions. For example, this Nike ad wasn’t created to appeal to a stereotypical football fan (read: Male, white, American),  but for a wider spectrum of individuals who have strong beliefs around social justice, activism or political protest.  

As a communicator, do you know the soft identities of your audience? If you don’t, take the time to find out.

2. Create evergreen narratives

Can we talk about Nike’s slogan game? I’m blown away that the “Just Do It” slogan is 30 years old. It is rare that a slogan can be powerful decades after its launch. It’s a testament to Nike’s ability to tap into a narrative that stands the test of time.

For NGOs, it’s worthwhile to think about what content or stories you can be telling that will have similar impact. “Poverty is Sexist,” anyone? As an industry, we have a wealth of stories to tell. Thinking outside the box on how to tell them will be our biggest challenge. We have plenty of inspiration — just look Médecins Sans Frontières#NotATarget campaign, which sparked a provocative global discussion on violence against health workers, patients, and facilities, and is now adopted by the larger humanitarian sector.

Long Story Short: What global development can learn from Nike

How can NGOs engage influencers? What's the key to a timeless slogan? In this episode, communications guru Carine Umuhumuza shares key lessons from Nike's latest #JustDoIt campaign.

What evergreen stories show your audience who you are and what you stand for? What are the stories that leave your audience having learned more about your values and mission as an organization? Tweet me @CarineUmu and let me know.

3. Play the long game on cultural moments

In communications, timing is everything. While it can sometimes seem like it’s a race for relevance, taking time to curate an appropriate response to a cultural moment can have significant impact. For Nike, that meant waiting until this past Monday to make a bold statement on a hotly debated issue. The payoff? A seat at the table of a conversation that they didn’t even start. 

It’s not always easy to identify what these moments will be for NGOs, but we can all start with identifying where we have unique perspectives to share or where our voice fills a gap, or where you can have the most impact.  

4. Taking a stand will only become more important

As the global development industry widens, there will be new rules of engagement. One that I’m predicting is a greater emphasis on organizations taking positions on issues of the day. While the issues might not always be as divisive as police brutality in the United States, there will be cultural and societal dialogues that have the potential to shape how development work gets done.

We’re already seeing important conversations around aid photography and how not to write about African woman — these are just the beginning of many more dialogues on problematic practices that plague our industry. Learning where your organization draws the line in the sand on major issues, and how you will decide when and how to participate in key moments, will be critical to engaging in a new media landscape.

I don’t want to give away the whole conversation. Listen to it in full here. What did you think of the Nike ad? Did it resonate with you? Let me know by tweeting me @CarineUmu or by leaving a comment below.

About the author

  • Carine Umuhumuza

    Carine Umuhumuza is a former associate director of communications at Devex, where she wrote about the latest trends, tips, and insights on media and communications for the global development community. Previously, Carine led digital initiatives at Devex for development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises.