A group of black Nike employees voiced repeated objections to the release of a recent ad by the company, people familiar with the matter said, asking management to publicly acknowledge the company’s own internal shortcomings on equality before promoting the ideal to consumers.
The internal pushback against the video ad, featuring footage of athletes including Colin Kaepernick and Serena Williams, illustrates persisting divisions within Nike, the world’s largest sportswear maker.
The company has a long history of progressive, socially-conscious marketing and yet has grappled in recent years with complaints by some staff members pushing for a more diverse and equitable working environment.
The advertisement, which was ultimately released last week, includes LeBron James and Megan Rapinoe saying, “we have a responsibility to make this world a better place”.
Inside Nike, the plans to publish the ad drove “a growing feeling internally that we were talking the talk outside but not walking the walk inside”, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.
The group of employees who voiced objections were members of a task force commissioned by the chief marketing officer to find solutions to Nike’s internal issues with diversity, these people said.
During the course of their work, they became aware of the ad in development, and recommended to leadership in emails and at least two video meetings that Nike make a public acknowledgment of its own problems before using current social justice narratives “for brand building”.
Management listened to the concerns, these people said, and empathised with the objectors’ point of view but decided against implementing their recommendations.
They reasoned in part that Nike’s work to address diversity shortcomings was internal and ongoing, and that Nike need not wait until that work was complete to be part of the broader social justice conversations.
“Our brand has celebrated incredible black athletes and inspired millions of people all over the world by amplifying their excellence. Internally, we have made progress across our [diversity and inclusion] efforts, and we recognise that we have a lot more work to do,” Nike said in a statement.
The company added that Nike was aiming to increase representation of black, Latinx and female employees across all levels.
John Donahoe, Nike’s chief executive since January, has explicitly said in internal emails to staff that the company could do better on diversity, and acknowledged there was dissonance between Nike’s public image and the private reality for some employees.
“Our most important priority is to get our own house in order,” he wrote in one such email on June 11.
Nike said the company had proactively shared those emails with news media in recent weeks, with the intent of communicating broadly that it was working on its shortcomings.
Last week Mr Donahoe announced a “structural shift” in management of Nike’s diversity and inclusion efforts, naming former Tesla human resources executive Felicia Mayo to a new role of chief talent, diversity and culture officer. Kellie Leonard, who served as chief diversity and inclusion officer since the job’s inception in 2018, was leaving the company, he said.
Nike is not alone in facing more requests for accountability by staff at major companies. Editors at Condé Nast and The New York Times resigned in June over objections by their employees to how the media organisations handled issues of race.
Nike’s chief rival Adidas fumbled some of its own initial response to the killing of George Floyd, a catalyst moment for discussions on systemic racism in the US and throughout the world.
Karen Parkin, Adidas chief human resources officer, resigned in June amid uproar from staffers that she had once regarded discussion about racism as “noise”. Ms Parkin apologised internally for her remark, and said in a statement that she was leaving Adidas “to unify the organisation”.
Still, Nike has for years been among the most vocal large companies advertising for diversity. A 2017 campaign with longtime Nike agency Wieden + Kennedy called “Equality” featured the civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” and incorporated testimony from such stars as basketball’s Mr James and tennis champion Ms Williams.
The following year an advertisement created to reflect the anniversary of the brand’s famous “Just Do It” slogan drew global headlines for promoting Mr Kaepernick, who lost work with the National Football League after repeatedly “taking a knee” to protest police brutality.
That same year Nike underwent a management reckoning following complaints by women staffers that the organisation fostered a boys club culture, leading to the high-profile exits of several executives, a pay review for thousands of staffers, and an apology by then-chief executive Mark Parker.