Until recently, Nike looked like one of the most successful
advertisers in history. Together with its global agency, Wieden &
Kennedy, and Simons Palmer in the UK, Nike had enjoyed many years at the
top of the sportswear market. But nothing lasts forever.
Endorsed by the brashest and baddest of sporting talent, Nike had
swiftly built itself a fearsome reputation, reinventing trainers and
sportswear as tokens of rebellion. Teenage boys, key figures in the
sales of kit, saw individualistic stars such as Eric Cantona, Charles
Barkley, Michael Jordan and Ian Wright wearing Nike and concluded: ’If I
spend pounds 100 on a pair of trainers, I too can have attitude.’
Rival brands were nowhere in sight. And Nike, established in 1964 by
Phil Knight, a former university track star and marathon-running shoe
salesman from Oregon, watched profits rocket throughout the early 90s:
orders for shoes and sportswear in 1995 stood at 35 per cent higher than
in the previous year.
Then in May this year, investors on the New York Stock Exchange
experienced a shock. Nike’s profit forecast for the second half of the
year looked considerably less sunny than usual. On 30 May, the company’s
shares dropped from dollars 76 to dollars 55.
Now Nike is considering axing its famous tag, ’just do it’, created by
Wieden & Kennedy in the mid-80s, and replacing it with a new line, ’I
can’. It is also thinking of awarding its other US roster shop, Goodby,
Silverstein & Partners, further assignments.
There’s similar upheaval on this side of the Atlantic, with the UK
incumbent, TBWA Simons Palmer, under pressure on its account as Nike
seeks ideas from WCRS and St Luke’s. As one US source said: ’They (Nike)
are trying to figure out everything. Are they with the right people, the
right agencies, the right categories? Everything is under consideration
What’s the problem? Tim Delaney, executive creative director of Leagas
Delaney, which handles global advertising for Nike’s arch-rival, Adidas,
offers his diagnosis: ’The ubiquity of the (Nike) tick has gone against
the cachet of the brand. The tick was clever, but it’s backfired. Kids
don’t want to be part of their peers but individuals.’
Of course, Nike’s brand credentials remain impressive. But for the first
time in ten years, it faces strong competition. The principal competitor
is Adidas. Once the ultimate fitness brand, Adidas practically
disappeared from view in the 80s. Then in 1993 the ailing German company
was taken over by Robert Louis-Dreyfus, the former Saatchi & Saatchi
boss, who appointed Leagas Delaney to handle its worldwide advertising
Since then, the three stripes of Adidas have become the logo, not just
for children on the street and fans on the terraces, but even among yoga
enthusiasts in prosperous Notting Hill.
Robert Senior, who heads the Nike account at TBWA Simons Palmer, reckons
that Adidas has benefited from the retro fashion trend and by
emphasising hi-tech products such as the Predator football boot. But
advertising, he concedes, plays a key part too: ’Adidas’s tone of voice
has become more aggressive and confident, drifting into Nike territory.
Five years ago a poster like ’66 was a great year for English football.
Eric was born’ could only have been produced by Nike. Now you have to
ask if that is still true.’
Even Reebok, positioned until recently as a women’s fitness company
catering to the aerobics boom, has acquired new vigour. In 1992,
Reebok’s senior management decided to get Reebok ’on field’. They
focused on basketball, baseball, the Olympics and soccer. At the 1990
football World Cup, Reebok was nowhere. But by 1994, one in five goals
were scored by Reebok endorsers.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of football in the sportswear
Which is good news for Adidas. As a European brand used by footballing
giants since the 70s, Adidas enjoys considerably greater credibility
than the US-based Nike and Reebok.
Not that Nike isn’t fighting its corner. With the US sportswear market
saturated, Britain looks appetising: analysts insist there’s room for
growth. Nike spends a third as much on advertising in the UK as Adidas,
and three times as much as Reebok. As for niche soccer brands such as
Umbro, they could only look on in horror as Nike threw a reported pounds
40 million into contracts with top clubs such as Arsenal.
Then there are the blockbuster ads. For Nike, Wieden & Kennedy came up
with the ’good versus evil’ extravangaza, and Simons Palmer created the
more quirky ’parklife’ (in which the likes of Cantona play
Reebok is also targeting football: last month, its new global
advertising director, John Wardley, appointed a global football agency,
Lowe Howard-Spink (Campaign, 31 October). Lowes’ board account director
on Reebok, Jeremy Bowles, explains: ’Football is so important. It gives
you credibility beyond the game.’ Other sports, such as running, can’t
do this: ’Running’s a more individual sport, there is not the same
In each of the past three years, Lowes has produced a soccer showstopper
for Reebok. First ’dream team’, which united Ryan Giggs with Sir Bobby
Charlton and George Best; then ’field of dreams’ with numerous
celebrities professing their love of football; and most recently the
animated story about Giggs, ’doppelganger’.
Despite the efforts of Nike and Reebok, Adidas continues to dominate
football. It controls 21.8 per cent of the market in football trainers;
followed by Puma (14.8 per cent), Reebok (11) and Umbro (5.9). The
mighty Nike, in fifth place, manages just 5.8 per cent, according to AC
Nielsen MEAL. Delaney claims: ’Adidas is genuinely passionate about
football. Nike is a big American corporate giant.’
Or is it that simple? Can ordinary punters really tell the difference?
In the past year, after all, Nike and Adidas have both produced
futuristic commercials about a ’good’ team battling against ’baddies’
(’good versus evil’ and ’the difference’).
And just to make the market more complicated, football is being
exploited by all sorts of companies, not just sportswear manufacturers.
With the 1998 World Cup in mind, they are all piling in. Coca-Cola, for
example, created a series of ads to exploit football mania with the
line: ’Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola.’ As Bowles says,
the challenge is on the sportswear giants to up the ante for the Paris
finals: ’We - Adidas, Nike and Reebok - will only have ourselves to
blame if we don’t go further.’
Against this background, an interest in several other sports remains
important. Last year Nike signed up the golfer, Tiger Woods; and Adidas
uses Prince Naseem Hamed, not to sell boxing boots but because Naz
possesses the right style. Paul Tredwell, who heads the Adidas account
at Leagas Delaney, explains: ’All advertising, regardless of sport, is
Simons Palmer’s Senior insists that there’s a difference between the
athletes endorsed by Nike and those picked by its rivals. ’Nike links
itself with athletes who excel in sport but they have to have something
to offer off the field as well as on. Bjorn Borg was quintessentially
not Nike, while John McEnroe was. Ryan Giggs (for Reebok) has moments of
pure inspiration on pitch, but what he contributes to mankind, I’m not
Some suggest that, in the rush to sign up stars, companies occasionally
settle for mediocre talents. Identifying the right players, Reebok’s
Wardley notes, is ’an art and a science’. Take Tim Henman, England’s
barely charismatic tennis hope, who was recently signed up by Adidas.
Leagas Delaney’s brief? To give the boy attitude. Critics hint that
Henman has little intrinsic cool, but Delaney fights back: ’You have to
deal with what you’ve got. We’ve made Henman a little cooler than he
was. He is much steelier than you would think.’
Why choose an Englishman at all? According to Senior, it’s not always
necessary only to use home-grown players: ’We ran a poster a few years
ago in the UK that captured the kids on streets. It featured the US
basketball star, Charles Barkley. No-one knew or cared who he was. But
it was clear he was a bloody good player who was physically robust.’
There’s another problem with Henman: what if he never wins the major
championships promised by the ads? Does this undermine the brand? ’You
can’t worry about that,’ Delaney declares. But there are dangers.
Remember Euro 96? Nike and Simons Palmer produced posters of Eric
Cantona and David Ginola, but neither of them was selected to play.
Senior defends his corner: ’It’s an occupational hazard. We picked those
players not because we thought they’d win but for the broader point they
made about sport and Nike’s connection with sport.’
Hmm, perhaps so. But in sports marketing more than in any other sector,
it’s crucial to back winners. In the US, the biggest athletics event of
the summer was a race between Donovan Bailey, the Olympic 100-metre
champion, and Michael Johnson, gold-medallist over 200 metres. The event
was dreamed up, promoted and staged entirely by the two athletes’ shoe
suppliers, Adidas and Nike respectively. The winner? Adidas.
As Nike reviews its advertising and marketing strategy this winter, one
thing is clear. The three-pronged war isn’t getting easier (especially
with the arrival of new leisure clothing brands such as Tommy
In the UK alone, the combined market in footwear and clothing was worth
almost pounds 1.7 billion last year. The potential fees for agencies are
similarly awe-inspiring. In the sports marketing championships, it’s not
the taking part that counts. Only winning will do.
As Campaign went to press, Simons Palmer lost its Nike business to
Wieden & Kennedy.
Market share: trainers
Reebok Nike Adidas
Football 11% 5.8% 21.8%
Basketball 4.9% 35.9% 28.6%
Running 27.6% 36.2% 14.6%
Fitness 36.2% 28.9% 21.1%
Source: AC Nielsen MEAL (May 97)
This article was first published on Campaign