It wasn’t long after Colin Kaepernick appeared as the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just do it” campaign on Monday that angry onlookers began posting videos of burning Nike products on Twitter.
Zach Wright, an account director with the Toronto-based marketing agency, FUSE Marketing Group, maintains that making the controversial, former-NFL player the face of the campaign was “fantastic marketing.”
The popular sporting goods brand received a fiery mix of backlash and praise on social media for the move. Social media users set their Nike products aflame Monday after the campaign aired, and posted videos of burning shoes, sweaters and other apparel to their accounts.
Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, sparked controversy after choosing to kneel rather than stand as the U.S. national anthem played before games, igniting a firestorm as other players began following his lead.
The ex-49ers player went unsigned the following season, sparking outrage from the media and advocacy groups. U.S. President Donald Trump criticized Kaepernick for disrespecting the American flag by kneeling during the anthem, an action historically undertaken in protest against police brutality. Trump lashed out at the NFL for failing to prevent the protests.
The NFL commented on the controversy Monday afternoon.
“The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities,” said NFL Executive Vice President of Communications Jocelyn Moore.
WATCH: The Panel: Will Colin Kaepernick decision help or hurt Nike?
“Obviously it’s a marketing play,” Wright said, and not a new one for Nike at that.
“Nike is a leader in this. A lot of the athletes that they work with are people that take stands,” he noted, citing Serena Williams and LeBron James.
Ceyda Mumcu, an assistant professor of sports marketing with the University of New Haven agrees that “this is a natural alignment with Nike’s personality.”
WATCH: New Nike campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick draws ire from some NFL fans
Nike has a history of taking political stances in its promotional campaigns. Both Mumcu and Wright cite the “Equality campaign” of 2017, which took a stance on diversity and equal opportunity for marginalized groups.
Branding expert Tony Chapman praises Nike’s consistent effort to be socially aware but seems less confident about the future success of the Just Do It campaign with Kaepernick at the head.
“They’re going right in the middle of a crossfire hurricane,” Chapman said in an interview with Global News.
“We’re not just talking about a protest. In the United States, kneeling during the national anthem is, to many, considered a sin. So, I spent a lot of time thinking, what was Nike thinking?” Chapman said.
Wright adds that despite the many angry Twitter users posting videos of burning Nike sneakers, the campaign could be an ideal way to attract younger, socially conscious consumers who want to support companies that line up with their own personal values.
“Especially with the younger demographic, they’re so much more socially aware of what’s happening politically and what’s happening socially that some of the bigger brands, in order to create a face and more of a personality to them, they need to take stands,” he explained.
Chapman agrees, but adds that there’s another reason for the sporting goods giant to appeal to younger consumers; Nike’s target market is under 25, whereas the average NFL fan is older men in their 40s and 50s. While 20-somethings spend approximately US$400 per year on Nike products, the average NFL fan spends about $59.
“It could an economic reason,” he speculates.
Nike has stood fast in its decision. Gino Fisanotti, a Nike brand vice-president for North America, told ESPN that the company believed Kaepernick to be “one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.”
Despite this, shares opened trading on Tuesday by falling three per cent, costing the company approximately US$3.75 billion in market cap since the announcement was made.
“Colin has been a Nike athlete since 2011,” Nike spokeswoman Sandra Carreon-John said on Monday. “Colin is one of a number of athletes being featured as part of our 30th anniversary of Just Do It.”
Despite it being a risky decision in the short term, experts believe that in addition to taking advantage of a lucrative branding opportunity, Nike wants to be “on the right side of history,” according to Chapman.
Chapman concurred. “We’re dealing with this kind of civil war happening in the States where there’s this great divide.”
“I think Nike is saying, I don’t want to be in the middle, I have to take a side and the side they’re taking is people that are absolutely believing in a better America,” Chapman said.
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.