5 Lessons From Working On Nike’s Just Do It

Jerome ConlonSeptember 17, 20157 min

Not all brand campaigns are created equal. Some have the power to deepen relationships and broaden the access point for your brand. From 1986 – 1996 I held the position of Director of Marketing Insights & Planning for Nike, Inc. These were the years where marketing and brand planning as internal disciplines were being defined for the first time. Reflecting back there are five things I learned in helping to bring the Just Do It (JDI) campaign to life that today’s brands can learn from.

1. Define the Problem Correctly. The most important initial step in any problem solving situation is to correctly define the nature of the problem. If this is not done you’ll be working on the wrong solution. So how did Nike know it had a brand positioning challenge? Leading up to JDI Nike experienced its first sales contraction in company history and another brand (Reebok) had risen from nowhere to claim the top sports footwear marketshare position. We also knew that our women’s footwear sales had declined by 60% over the prior ten years. We developed hypotheses about other possible contributing factors. For instance we hypothesized that our ad agency was using the wrong communication model and that some of our product lines were out of alignment with market needs. We put in place a Brand Strength Monitor to get a better reading on how the brand was performing with important market segments (men vs. women and younger vs. older fitness participants). We used exploratory workshops, two hours in length, to have an in-depth discussion with brand users and prospects about a wide range of topics such as: the role that sports plays in their lives; why they participated in sports; how they viewed brands in the category, how they viewed advertising in the category, what language and imagery in the category they found compelling and how they defined value when shopping for products.

2. Assess Market Alignment Issues. All of the research topics and questions were designed to help the brand come to a realization about the nature of the brand positioning challenge it faced. Intuitively we felt that the core problem we faced was related to getting the brand positioning right. We knew that Nike was solid with teen and college males who had an interest in competitive sports. But in subsequent research we also learned Nike was weak with women and older fitness consumers of both genders. We also learned that Nike’s brand communications featured and presented through our advertising was alienating to most women. The demographics of sports participation favored the fitness participants. The fitness segment of the market numbered 150 million people, while the competitive sports segment (if you included high school, college and pro) numbered about one million. Research revealed there were different motivations for fitness participation than competitive sports. Men were more motivated by competition and more extreme performance and styling, while women were more motivated by the inner experience of fitness and the emotional benefits that this provided. Women it turned out at that time also had different performance, style and pricing needs that competitive sport males, yet this was not well reflected in Nike’s product line offerings.

3. Translate Research Information into Insight. A common challenge with market research findings is how to lay them out in a way that will inspire action. If results are just laid out in numbers they will fail to guide and inspire brand storytellers how they might unfold the brand narrative in a new way. While it is important to know the facts in research often those facts by themselves are not enough. This was certainly the case. And so I was asked to provide an in-depth briefing to Nike’s new advertising director on the state of the Nike brand and its positioning challenges. I shared my personal sense of the situation with Scott Bedbury (two weeks after he joined the company). I was a daily runner. This is what attracted me to Nike’s brand truth in the first place. I knew from direct experience that a good six mile run made a tremendous difference in how I felt for the rest of the day. I knew that the physical and emotional benefits of regular fitness participation were self evident. I also knew that no brand in the category was really telling this story…and that if Nike could convey the radiance, chi or life-force lift that is experienced in fitness pursuits that it would appeal to a lot more people than just the competitive sports elite athletes.

4. Translate Insight into Inspiration. Very often the client gets from their ad agency what they deserve. The tendency is for clients to provide agencies with ad briefs that focus on product positioning only and not optimal brand positioning. Nike avoided this fate with Just Do It because our Ad Director ignored the many requests from a dozen product line managers to feature their latest product as the focal point for the next seasons ad campaign. Early on Scott realized that a larger opportunity to position the brand more optimally was revealing itself. Here is the loose brief that Scott Bedbury provided to Nike’s Ad Agency Wieden+Kennedy.

“Nike is about to become a significant network television advertiser. We will spend nearly three times what we spent on the ‘Revolution’ campaign in the fall of 1988. (Despite the high visibility of ‘Revolution,’ Nike had spent less than $5 million on TV that year.) This is a turning point for a company that not long ago spoke to its customers at track meets from the tailgate of a station wagon. This just cannot be a narrow look back at where we have been. We should be proud of our heritage, but we must also realize that the appeal of ‘Hayward Field’ (an Ad recently produced set at the University of Oregon’s Track & Field Stadium) is narrow and potentially alienating to those who are not great athletes. We need to grow this brand beyond its purest core…we have to stop talking just to ourselves. It’s time to widen the access point. We need to capture a more complete spectrum of the rewards of sports and fitness. We achieved this with ‘Revolution.’ Now we need to take the next step.”

This loose brief frames the problem (too narrow brand positioning) and provides the agency with a concrete example (the Revolution ad) that had widened the access point for the brand, but that insight seems to have been forgotten. He simply asked them to bring that strategic brilliance back. Here is the Revolution ad that had run one year prior.

5. Recognize a Deep Campaign When You See One. Deep campaigns are rare, they are not run of the mill advertising campaign concepts. The JDI campaign pitch that Wieden+Kennedy came back with was the beginning of a deep campaign that defined Nike’s Brand Purpose in a way that appealed to a far wider circle of consumers, young and old, male and female, competitive and fitness oriented. It touched on Nike Brand Truth which was to stay focused on delivering “authentic athletic performance” in products and communications across many different fields of play. It also addressed the basic consumer need: everyone has a body and is therefore a potential athlete. This campaign addressed core issues in society without mentioning them directly: getting in shape, staying fit and keeping weight off. The campaign used both elite athletes and everyday people. It used symbolism, music, humor and inspirational story lines. The campaign gave Nike a new brand language that was both visual and verbal. It opened up new chapters of Nike’s brand story for the next 27 years and running.

Just Do It launched in the spring of 1988 and Nike’s annual sales were $1.2 billion, a 27% increase over the prior year. Ten years later in 1998 Nike’s sales had grown ten fold. Nike is still using the JDI campaign today 27 years later as its annual sales have grown thirty fold.

In conclusion, there are some important lessons within this story for today’s brands. Perhaps the most important realization is that brand positioning power can grow over time if a brand early on can locate and define its brand purpose and then develop an inspirational “deep campaign” concept around that purpose. This results in an alignment of values and marketing mix elements that year after year produce a coherent wave form that firmly establishes ones brand character and positioning. This allows the attachment of a unique, strong and favorable set of associations to a brand that give it a deep and complex character that is highly differentiated. These lessons are the most relevant to all brands operating in the culture industries, which include sports, personal technology, entertainment, clothing, beauty, fashion, auto, food, beverage, hospitality/tourism and education. These culture industries are all like Nike operating in high interest, high involvement and high profile product categories. Brands in these kinds of categories can perform ‘identity myths’ which create identity value, affinity, esteem and desire. If you are working in such a category it is important to realize that backstory research to arrive at a more optimal brand positioning resembles what an author or a screenwriter might perform.

These and other insights into brand truth, purpose and deep campaigns is covered in greater detail in the new book, Soulful Branding – Unlock the Hidden Energy In Your Company and Brand.

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