Has Nike sponsorship lost the plot?
Of all the questions we’ve ever posed, this feels the most scary. For years, Nike has set the gold standard for creativity, insight and style. It’s on everyone’s list of iconic brands. It’s the ambushers’ darling, the sina qua non of brand statement. It’s the market leader bar none in sports clothing and accessories, its profitability dwarfs adidas and Puma. And yet the signs are clearly there.
Let’s take two.
Number one: Tiger
Tiger: Just Don’t
When Tiger fell from grace, Nike stood by him, just as it had done with Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant and just as it would do with LeBron. It was an archtypally Nike moment, an F you to the global mainstream, a latter day Just do it moment. But it was a mistake.
Tiger’s behaviour wasn’t a tragic slip, it wasn’t even a direct emotional derivative of play hard, work hard – it was abject, and for many people, if not unforgivable, glaring enough to tarnish his reputation for ever. And Nike backed the wrong side. Tiger’s behaviour showed a deeply unstable psychological state, a schism within his persona which any psychological profiling would have told them would be difficult to put back together again. And then again, they didn’t – stick by him, that is. Slowly, they downgraded his presence, his prominence. They stuck up two fingers, said Just do it – and then didn’t. (And, it has to be said, they MUST have known what was happening all along.)
Number two: Write the Future
tales of celebrity
Although Campaign lauds Write the Future as another example of trumping Adidas, their assessment is facile and untroubled, like most typical trade journalism, by critical faculty – here’s why.
As most marketing commentators would agree, the beauty of Nike has always been that it understands emotion and in particular some very male emotions around competition and the psyche of the competitor. Its communications over the years have demonstrated an incredible level of attunement – deep consumer insight, in other words. By allowing Michael Jordan to talk in its advertising at the level of athlete, not superstar, Nike showed how deeply it understood the common emotional thread which binds competitors at every level. It’s a thread that the Air Jordan ads returned to again and again. It’s hard work, not celebrity, that makes the hero unique.
All sport is about risk and reward, the highs and lows of competition. The intrinsic jeopardy of competition, especially public competition, is raw emotion and the very stuff of sport, the reason we turn on, a major storyline for every sports film there’s ever been. But risk and reward are not the driver. The archetypal competitor, Nike’s original territory, plays to win – at any level. That’s the connection between playing for the New York Knicks or the York Knavemire Harriers. The truer storyline is the player who beats his boss on the squash court and gets fired. It isn’t an idealisation of the competitive spirit, it’s a simple fact: competition is 100% about winning. Everything else is a side issue.
In Write the Future, the consequences of scoring (not even winning) – Rooney’s boardroom, Cannavaro’s TV show, Ronaldo’s statue – aren’t universal. They’re not the raw emotion of sport. The scenarios of fortune and missed fortune flashing through the heads of Ronaldo, Rooney and Cannavaro are tales of celebrity.
If this were just a question of two missed goals, or own goals, doubting Nike would still be a remote option. But these two signs are consistent with an underlying malaise and attitude visible in many areas of Nike, which suggests the problem isn’t creative so much as institutional. Nike is too close to fame.
Its sponsorship model has for ever been based on the twin foundations of personality and creativity. They recognised long before the rest of the industry the power, freedom and the growing value of the individual – athletes have personality, brand values, a voice, they’re flexible, they turn up, they press flesh; teams, generally, haven’t, don’t and can’t. Individual athlete relationships gave them the freedom to nutmeg the World Cup with ease, and even to take on the Olympics (for a while). With campaigns such as Scorpion and Joga Bonita, they managed to aggregate their athlete endorsers in stunning powerplays of creativity, production values and chutzpah which both preserved the emotional thread and engaged with real life.
Scorpion: a stunningly integrated powerplay
Not so in 2010. Although Nike talks of its athletes not as sponsorship assets but as partners, family almost, in developing leading technology products for the athlete in all of us, this is disingenuous. Nike has slowly gravitated to a marketing model which is focused on leveraging every cent of commercial value out of these relationships, with minimal investment in community or sustainability. Tiger’s licensing deal with Nike made Nike’s public commitment to Tiger a matter of business, not principle. Their extensive athlete programme, commercially, is a broad investment base whose function is to talent spot and capture the most valuable sports talent; as an A list Nike athlete, you are a sales vehicle for licensed product, and direct sales advertising.
This commercial model, as effective as it may be, puts Nike dangerously in hock to its key athletes: how do you manage your athletes as both brand ambassadors and sales vehicles, when they’re also your business partners? These extremely close commercial relationships, this dependency almost, could be one reason for what looks alarmingly like a cult of celebrity at the heart of Nike. Their two endorsement relaunches of the past year (Tiger and LeBron) are significantly different from their treatment of Kobe Bryant. Kobe was a demonstration of determination, and a commitment to overcoming both critics and doubters, with strong echoes of some of the more powerful Michael Jordan spots. The Tiger Woods relaunch had none of that. No contrition, no hunger, no drive – barely any emotion at all. Self-referential and cringe-worthy, roundly criticised by media, making no attempt to re-engage with fans. If anything, the Lebron James campaign is worse. The usual amazing Nike production values, and directorial artistry – but ultimately sycophantic, and out of touch with consumers. Nike as celebrity apologist.
Nike has changed the sponsorship industry, and over time they’ve certainly changed Redmandarin’s view of what makes a successful campaign. Nike showed that, though you can never own a sport through sponsorship, what you can own is your unique attitude to sport. Nike is still a phenomenally successful business, spreading across new sports, with a new NFL apparel contract and record sales, and now is clearly not the time to be worried about Nike’s commercial future. And yet, after watching campaigns like these, we are. Nike’s founding values, the values which built the brand, are presently nowhere to be seen. Nike might not have lost the plot, but it has lost the thread, and with its thread, potentially, its audience.