#JustBurnIt: Nike's latest campaign literally under fire as consumers burn products

Disgruntled US American consumers have boycotted Nike by burning its products to protest against the company's decision of appointing former controversial National Football League (NFL) player Colin Kaepernick (pictured) to front its new 30th anniversary "Just Do It" campaign.

Since the launch of the campaign, which also features tennis player Serena Williams, National Basketball Association player LeBron James and NFL players Odell Beckham Junior and Shaquem Griffin, several consumers took to Twitter to share pictures and videos of them burning their Nike sports shoes and even cutting the Nike logo off their socks.

Hashtags such as "JustBurnIt" and "BoycottNike" have also surfaced on Twitter, with some netizens suggesting other suitable national icons for the Nike's campaign, including Martin Luther King Junior. For those of us unaware of the controversy, here's a quick summary. Kaepernick made headlines two years ago for kneeling during the national anthem during NFL games to protest against police brutality towards African Americans. His action has since divided the country, with some calling him out for disrespecting the national anthem and flag, while others applauded him for standing up for African American rights.

The new Nike spot, revealed by Kaepernick on Twitter, features a close up shot of his face with the words "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything". Less than 24 hours after the tweet, Nike received over US$43 million worth of media exposure, reported Bloomberg. Meanwhile, media reports also said that Nike's shares also fell nearly 4% following the announcement.

Marketing has since reached out to Nike. According to Fast Company, Kaepernick will be featured on billboards, online ads and TV commercials. Nike will also be unveiling an apparel line for him and donate to Kaepernick's Know Your Rights charity. Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice-president of brand, said in a statement that the company believes Kaepernick is one of the "most inspirational athletes of this generation", who has used the power of sport to help fight for progress, multiple media reports stated. Fisanotti added that Nike wants to "energise" the meaning of "Just Do It" and introduce it to a new generation of athletes.

Nike is not the first brand to have faced backlash over showing support for an alleged controversial figure. In 2016, New Balance expressed its support for US President Donald Trump following the election, which caused several consumers to share videos and pictures of them burning their New Balance shoes.

Social chatter

According to statistics from Meltwater between 30 August to 5 September, 70% of online sentiments were negative, while 7% were positive. Social reach on the campaign peaked on 4 September with 2.6 billion mentions. Similarly, social volume for the campaign also peaked on the same day with over 474k mentions.

Mimrah Mahmood, APAC regional director, Media Solutions, Meltwater told Marketing that Nike did take a risk using Kaepernick for their campaign, and at first glance, the social sentiment may seem to skew towards the negative spectrum.

However, after a preliminary look, the data seems to indicate that the majority of responses stem from a passionate group of people looking to leverage this campaign to express their pre-existing sentiments, Mahmood said.

"The sentiment shown here may not fully be reflective of the 'performance' of this campaign. In a broader marketing context, it’s always important to factor in context before reacting to the data as it is," Mahmood added.

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While using a polarising figure can create awareness and global attention, it has the potential to spark a backlash and unwittingly drag brands into a political conversation. Nick Foley, president, SE Asia Pacific and Japan at Landor said marketers should express a level of caution before engaging celebrities, athletes or well-known figures.

Regardless of whether the individual is polarising or not, the brand ambassador's awareness or stance on certain issues can potentially be mistaken for that of the brand's. He added the situation becomes more complicated when a controversial personality is involved.

"Controversy, managed appropriately, can be a disruptive element that both boosts brand awareness and fosters loyalty. Conversely, it can have negative ramifications for a brand and divide consumers accordingly," Foley explained.

However, Nike is no stranger to controversy, he said, having caused a stir during the 1996 Olympic Games in Altanta when it ran a guerilla campaign with the phrase "You don't win silver. You lose gold." He added:

Nike is a renegade brand and I’d argue controversy is part of their DNA.

"Everyone remembers Nike. No one remembers Reebok who spent a fortune on being the ‘Official sponsor of the Atlanta Olympics’," Foley said. He also expects this backlash to have a temporary effect on Nike's share price.

Agreeing with Foley is Andrew Crombie, founder of crombie.design, who said that companies need to take a long term view when it comes to brand or share value, adding that the dip in share price is a short term reaction to the campaign.

"You need to understand the core consumers and what’s driving them. You need to align your brand values with those of the audience," he said. Previously, Nike used to focus on the attitude of the inner athlete, aiming to inspire consumers to push themselves to be better. This, however, was targeted at the Baby Boomer generation and times have changed.

According to Crombie, the campaign shows that Nike understands the new consumer, who are now comprised of Millennials and Gen Zs, who are driven by social issues and inconsistencies. Its approach shows that the company is in tune with the underlying social inconsistencies that icons such as Kaepernick and Williams are bringing to light.

"In this context, Nike’s selection of people who divide opinion is a good way of driving the brand to the centre of their target’s conscience. The social media reaction is support of Nike is proof that Nike’s message is in sync with the buying audience, not the aging Boomer-biased shareholders," he added. The fact that a group of consumers are protesting a brand, rather than protesting the social issues, further emphasises how well Nike has understood the new market. He added:

Branding by definition is exclusionary, and Nike has done it well. It will pay in the long run.

Also weighing in on the conversation is Ambrish Chaudhry, head of strategy, Asia Pacific, Superunion, who said that Nike has just reminded consumers of its continued relevance to the social fabric and they are also playing the "longer game". He said:

This may be the most relevant thing that Nike has done ever since Under Armour started usurping its glory.

"By being true to their beliefs, they'll suffer a temporary impact on the share price. But by reminding everyone of their philosophy, they should experience a sustained lift in their brand and business value," he said. Chaudhry also noted that for every negative comment on Nike's association with Kaepernick, there is one equally passionate positive supporter voicing their support, including 15-year-old girls and war veterans.

"That almost never happens. Negativity is easy to engender positivity less so," he said.