How Adidas struggled to respond to antiracism protests

Adidas struggled to formulate ideas for an antiracism campaign of its own as it searched for a swift response to the wave of protests over police violence sweeping the US, ultimately deciding to retweet an advertisement by arch-rival Nike, according to people familiar with the decision.

When the German sportswear group retweeted the Nike ad on May 30, it added a comment emphasising the need to work together to combat racism, but the company did not co-ordinate with Nike before sharing, two of the people said, catching employees at the US company by surprise.

The background to the retweet illuminates how, even after years of investment in the crucial US market, Adidas was caught flat-footed just as corporate messaging around racial inequality gained new-found importance in the weeks after the death of George Floyd.

As companies around the world rushed to disavow systemic racism, Adidas developed some draft statements of its own. One such idea included the words, “you can’t have sports without black people,” according to two of the people.

While the brainstorming was still in progress, employees were petitioning higher-up executives to speak out, leading to a sense of urgency at Adidas to say something quickly.

“The pressure came from all around,” said one person involved in the decision making.

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Ultimately, Adidas decided to take the unprecedented step of sharing a new campaign by Nike while executives continued to deliberate on what to do next, this person said. The Nike campaign, using a twist on its famous slogan, said: “For once, Don’t Do It. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.”

In a statement on Tuesday, 10 days after it retweeted its rival, Adidas chief executive Kasper Rorsted announced new initiatives the company will take to diversify its workforce, including filling at least 30 per cent of US jobs with black or Latino candidates in future, financing scholarships for black students, and investing $20m over the next four years in programmes that support the black community.

“The events of the past two weeks have caused all of us to reflect on what we can do to confront the cultural and systemic forces that sustain racism,” Mr Rorsted said. 

Since 2015, Adidas has reshaped its company to better compete in the US sportswear industry, where it has historically lagged behind industry leader Nike in sales and influence. 

The group moved its global creative director from Germany to the US, and reshuffled its endorsement portfolio to nix some leaguewide outfitting deals, such as one it held for the National Basketball Association until 2017, and instead doubled down on college sports and working with influencers like Beyoncé

Such efforts have been broadly successful in increasing sales in North America, which rose 13 per cent in 2019 to €5.3bn, outpacing the group’s overall sales growth of 8 per cent. 

In recent years, Adidas has faced pressure from its employees to be a more inclusive workplace. Last week, a cohort of employees presented a document titled “Our State of Emergency” to Adidas executives, imploring leadership to invest in black staff members and commit to fighting for racial justice, according to Footwear News

Nike, for its part, is widely considered to be a leader in taking a commercial stance against racial injustice, doing so implicitly with their 2018 advertising campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick — the American football player who sparked controversy for protesting police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem. Nike’s sales rose 10 per cent in the quarter following the ad’s debut, despite widespread calls for boycotts at the time. 

A spokeswoman for Adidas declined to comment on the decision to retweet the new Nike campaign. A spokesman for Nike declined to comment, but the company responded to Adidas on Twitter with a red heart emoji.