June 25, 2018

Nike’s ‘Empowering’ Brand Strategy

How Nike became one of the world’s most successful brands due to it’s ‘Empowering’ brand strategy.

Nike’s business model is no different to its competitors (Adidas, Reebok, Fila, Asics, LA Gear, Puma, Converse, Keds and K-Swiss), using the same production factories, distribution lines and marketing strategy (product design, PR, endorsements, TV ads, sponsorship,…). Goldman and Papson (2000, p15) suggest that;

The real value of the Nike shoe is the swoosh it carries on its side. The swoosh has become a form of social and cultural currency that draws its value from factors such as the style of shoe design and power of celebrity endorsements. Nike competitiveness depends primarily on its logo or trademark.

More than a Swoosh

I would say that they are almost right. The trademark in itself is not worth much; it’s what the trademark represents that has value. A trademark’s purpose is to evoke those emotions and feelings (brand image) that all the TV ads, endorsements, retail shops, product design, brand personality and brand philosophy have created. It’s not like Adidas and Reebok hasn’t attached a brand image to their trademark, they have. The question is; are these brand images appealing to the customer’s pre-programmed instinct to survive, reproduce or both, and if so to what degree? It usually comes down to the company’s brand philosophy, or their brand values, in other words’ that they are and their attitude to life. Nike real success came with their tagline “Just do it”. Why this tagline resonates with so many people is according to Goldman and Papson (2000, pp 20-21) that;

It speaks to the restraint and inhibition in everyday life that keep people from the experience of transcendence. Nike provides a language of self-empowerment – no matter whom you are, no matter what you’re physical, economic or social limitations. Transcendence is not just possible; it is waiting to be called forth. Take control of your life and don’t submit to the mundane forces that can so easily weigh us down in daily life. No more rationalisations and justifications, it’s time to act.

Again I would say that they are mostly right, but it raises a question; what drives people to want to ‘take control of their lives’, ‘don’t submit to the mundane forces’ and ‘act’? Simply really, its because someone with control of their lives and with the ability and willingness to act is attractive qualities in a potential mate. For women, they are clues in a man that can lead to wealth and power and subsequently increase their own reproductive success. And in no other environment than the impoverished are these qualities critical to express for a young man with no job or no visible potential future. If women prefer their spouses to have wealth and power; an uneducated, unemployed black youth in an inner-city industrial country surrounded by prosperity and wealth will stand little chance. Women can see across the river and there is no doubt in their minds; the grass is greener (the color of money). Wally Olins (2003 p. 17) explains the symbolic meaning of Nike shoes;

A cleaner at Banjul airport in the Gambia scraps and saves to buy Nike running shoes as a signal to himself and others that he is able to share some at least of the rich world’s glamour and fashion. For him the shoes are much more symbolic than functional.

Now, why would a Banjul airport cleaner want to send out this signal for any other reason than to (1) attract women and (2) become more popular among men (women prefer the leader and most popular – it’s a quality they want their offsprings to inherit). It ass seems to lead back to reproduction.

Don’t Tell Me You Love Me – Show Me!

But just having a philosophy isn’t enough. Humans are suspicious by nature, probably because of our long-term and short-term sexual selection strategies. Most women have experienced that a man will say almost anything to “get some”. Most of us have “fallen for” some advertising that didn’t live up to its claim. It’s a bit like a husband saying to his wife the immortal words; “I love you” every day of their marriage. He comes home from work, puts his feet on the table, demands dinner and switches on the TV. On other words; just saying it isn’t enough, you have to show it. Nike had a stroke of magic when they signed the relatively unknown basketball player Michael Jordan. Let’s go back to the “ghetto” and see it through the eyes of a 14-year-old black man.

To them, their biggest chance of “making it” would either be in entertainment or sports. On TV there are successful black people on almost only two types of channels; music and sports. A typical rap video has a black male decorated with ice (slang for diamonds) surrounded by hip-hop honey’s (slang for skimpy dressed young female dancers) shaking their booty (slang for ass). The 14-year-old then starts to dress like his idol with fake diamonds and chins. As of yet, no diamond produces have tried to target these customers, probably because they can’t afford to buy the real thing. Now if we look at sports we find that trainers and athletic clothing are very much prominent in poor communities both in the US and the UK. A fashion among young men in the UK is to wear a “hood” which is basically the hood of a sports top. So getting a pair of sneakers shouldn’t be too difficult for the 14-year-old, the only problem he faces is which one; the stores are full of choice. Then on TV one day he sees an ad with a black man that can fly; Michael Jordan and the slogan “Just do it” – Nike.

Superhuman Endorsement

It was a huge success for Nike and Jordan himself who have become an icon in his own right. Nike has continued this successful trend with Tiger Woods and then with a black woman annihilating the white competition on the tennis court; Serena Williams. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it; the communication of the communication. How you say it should include the tone of voice of all communications (marketing, design, environment). Nike makes their “Just do it” philosophy believable by their marketing efforts, but it is all driven by the attitude, image, and identity that men (in particular) can identify with in order to create an identity of themselves that they can use to attract the opposite sex to increase their chances of reproductive success. We are all descendants of people who successfully bred by attracting a mate.

‘Just Do It’ vs ‘Impossible Is Nothing’

So what about the competition? Well interestingly Adidas has changed their tagline and philosophy to: ‘Impossible is Nothing’. This is a bit like Nike’s ‘Just do it’, hinting too that nothing is impossible and that you can do anything. The difference is that Nike got there first and that Nike is telling the consumer just what to do while Adidas just has an attitude. ‘Impossible is Nothing’ should work fine and be appealing as an identity to embrace and express. The question with Adidas is whether they follow through with their tone of voice and communications. The last TV ad I saw from Adidas showed football superstars dribbling and scoring in a sort of virtual playing field. It was clearly computer-generated and let’s say “paid for”. It raises the question of authenticity, which might indicate deception, which is not a great quality in either sex. Deception is frond upon due to infidelity and loosing out on all the time and energy invested in a relationship. David Beckham might have had some great goals in his life, but how great is he really, and what about his personality; a bit slow and boring if you ask me. He has fame but does he have attitude, an ‘Impossible is Nothing’ attitude? There is also a difference in the feeling of empowerment between ‘Impossible is Nothing’ and ‘Just do it’. Adidas tells you how to think or what attitude to have whilst Nike tells you what to do (a man of action is attractive).

Brand Insight
About The Brand Specialist
Rikard is an award-winning Creative Director and Brand Strategist with a diverse experience from Brand Consultancies, Advertising, and Innovation Agencies. His client list has become quite impressive over the years, with projects ranging from Icelandair Corporate Identity to Mercedes-Benz repositioning Ad-Campaign.