The Costly Brand Strategy Of Playing Not To Lose

Jerome ConlonOctober 5, 20154 min

Playing to win is a sports metaphor that describes discernable action on the court or field by a team putting out extra effort to close a gap, come from behind and win the game. It is characterized by bold play calling, players making unusual moves to break free, get open and score. The opposing team who is in the lead often adopts a different posture, a prevent defense, stalling to burn down the clock and conservative play calling. This conservative style of play in sometimes called “playing not to lose.”

This metaphor can characterize how competing brands in high profile categories sometimes behave. An example can be seen in the battle for market share dominance in 1988. Over a five-year period beginning in 1983 and ending in 1988 Reebok had come from under-the-radar to become the top selling athletic footwear brand in North America, displacing Nike and Adidas. Reebok’s primary consumer segment was the women’s fitness enthusiasts, which were snapping up Reebok’s Princess and Freestyle aerobics shoes by the millions. The aerobics shoe also became a street fashion look as many women felt that these shoes were more comfortable, affordable and appealing to the eye than shoe’s offered by other brands.

In 1987 I had moved into a newly created job directing marketing insights and planning inside Nike. Reebok’s rise had caused Nike’s sales to contract by 10%, which resulted in a 20% reduction of our workforce. We were behind in the game, the clock was running out, and we were losing players. This created an intense period of introspection into comparative brand positions, communications and product insights inside Nike that led to strategic branding breakthroughs resulting in the Nike’s resurgence and subsequent dominance in the industry. But that would come later.

No Lead Is Safe

During this time there is a little known hinge in the history of the rivalry between Nike and Reebok that sheds light on how playing to win vs. playing not to lose shifts the momentum between competitors in a game. 1988 was a year in which the economy was going soft and companies in many industries were pulling back on advertising spending. It was also the year that Nike and Reebok went head-to-head with two high profile brand campaigns. Nike launched the very first of its Just Do It ads. Reebok countered with its first major media campaign entitled: Reebok’s Lets UBU. You can see the very first ads of each of these two campaigns below.

The 1st Reebok lets UBU ad

The 1st Just Do It ad

Inside Nike we monitored the impact of these two ads as they played out in the first weeks and months. From media buzz, trade news, retail store sell-thru data and our own internal orders Nike knew it had a hit with Just Do It. It also became apparent through listening to the same channels that Reebok’s UBU campaign had fallen flat with its retail partners and the public. The identity myth Reebok was performing with the UBU ad wasn’t grounded with how people viewed themselves or wanted to see themselves. The media buzz was more critical than complimentary and reports coming back from our sales force were that Reebok’s sales at retail appeared to be stalling.

Nike Plays To Win…And Wins

Because Reebok’s campaign appeared to be underperforming it was a reasonable guess that they would pull back in their media buy until they had evidence they had a successful campaign. At that time I estimated this would take them at least a year to figure out. In the meantime inside Nike, Just Do It emerged a star. So we reasoned that doubling our media buy and extending the Just Do It campaign with a dozen more creative executions over the next year could change the momentum in the game.

Nike hitting the Just Do It campaign gas while Reebok was hitting the brakes on its UBU brand campaign is what allowed Nike to regain the #1 market share position in North America by the end of 1989, growing 63% that year. It pressed Nike’s authentic athletic positioning advantage, which tapped into a deep and enduring identity myth. This campaign also had a coolness factor going for it. It mixed up the use of superstars with everyday people, high profile competitive teams with low profile alternative sports and fitness activities and it had an inner radiance of spirit and sense of humor. In 1988 Nike had total annual sales of $1.2 billion and Reebok’s annual sales were $1.67 billion. Since 1988 Nike has kept the Just Do It campaign alive, freshening it up with new executions periodically. Today Nike’s annual brand sales top $30 billion. In 2006 the Reebok brand was acquired by Adidas for $3.8 billion. Today Adidas and Reebok sales combined account for less than half of Nike’s global sales.

While there is far more to Nike’s success story than this 1988 campaign showdown, this incident was a pivot point where the momentum and fortunes of these two brands shifted.

Playing not to lose cost Reebok their advantage over Nike. Ground they have never regained. Brand marketers must never lose sight of this, no lead is safe and the only strategy is to play to win.

I share more on the underpinning of Nike’s success in my new book, Soulful Branding – Unlock the Hidden Energy In Your Company and Brand.

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