Nike CEO John Donahoe says brands need to stand by their values amid DeSantis, Disney feud

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Nike CEO John Donahoe interviewed by Sara Eisen at the CNBC CEO Council Summit in Santa Barbara, California.
Randy Shropshire | CNBC

As a political battle rages between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney, Nike CEO John Donahoe said it’s important for corporations to choose their battles, but fight for the values integral to their brands. 

During a sit-down interview at the inaugural CNBC CEO Council Summit in Santa Barbara, California, Monday evening, CNBC’s Sara Eisen touched on the DeSantis controversy and asked Donahoe if he was worried Nike would become a target.

“Aren’t you worried that if Ron DeSantis becomes president, he’s going to go after you as a woke corporation?” Eisen asked Donahoe about the expected Republican presidential contender. 

In response, Donahoe said companies don’t need to weigh in on every political kerfuffle but should be a loud voice when their brand’s values are under attack. 

“I think Bob’s doing a great job at this,” Donahoe said of Disney CEO Bob Iger.

“If it’s core to who you are and your values, then no, you stand up for your values,” he said. “If it’s commenting on some political issue that’s in someone else’s backyard, then we may have that personal feeling, but we don’t comment on it with our brand and publicly.” 

Iger wasn’t leading Disney when, in February 2022, he publicly slammed Florida Republicans’ controversial bill limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation, which he and other critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”

His tweet the bill “will put vulnerable, young LGBTQ people in jeopardy” put more pressure on Disney’s CEO at the time, Bob Chapek, to break his silence about the legislation.

After Disney came out against the bill, DeSantis and his allies targeted the Orlando-area special tax district that has allowed Walt Disney World to essentially self-govern its operations for decades. The clash has gone on for more than a year, and it has continued even after Iger returned as CEO in November following Chapek’s ouster.

Donahoe pointed to three values that are integral to Nike’s brand: racial and social justice, sustainability and youth involvement in sports, particularly for young girls.

When it comes to racial and social justice, Donahoe said Nike built its brand in partnership with some of the most iconic Black and brown athletes in history, such as Michael Jordan, Serena Williams and LeBron James. 

“In addition, our core consumer for the Nike brand, the Jordan Brand, the converse brand, are urban Black and brown communities — that’s where sneaker culture started,” Donahoe explained. “And so, we listen to our athletes and to our consumer about what they care about and they care about racial and social justice and so we view that as core to who we are, core to our identity … so it gives us a little more courage to speak out.” 

The company has focused on youth involvement in sports as young girls are dropping out of athletics at “an alarming rate,” Donahoe said.

“Turns out one of the biggest reasons girls drop out is they don’t have female coaches when they hit puberty,” said Donahoe. “So, we’re trying to train 20,000 female coaches, moms and other former athletes to be coaches to promote youth. So that’s less of a controversial issue, but it’s one we care about as a value.” 

On sustainability, Donahoe said as “the leader” in the industry, Nike must set an example for change because if it doesn’t, “it won’t happen.” 

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