Nike: Goddess Of Context Branding

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I dig Nike. I really do.

Nike does two things exceedingly well: The first is product design. The second is marketing.

But I'm still trying to wrap my mind around whether or not Nike purposely focuses its innovation on cooler products rather than better products.

(Yes, there is a difference.)

I'm a triathlete, so I know a lot of runners. (And by a lot, I mean A LOT!) Not one runs in Nike. Zero. Zip. (Okay, maybe the track kids, but track cleats and super light racing flats are different from regular running shoes.)

Guess what running shoes most runners with a few years experience use: Mizuno, Asics, Saucony, Brooks, Pearl Izumi, even.


Exactly. Unless you're an athlete, you've probably never heard of any of those brands.

What you know is Nike. Adidas. Reebok. New Balance.

The truth is that despite all of its innovation, all of its patents around the Air product line(s) and all of its marketing, almost nobody runs in Nike. (At least not for very long.) Most people who wear Nike shoes wear them to make a statement about their identity. Their lifestyle. Their place in the world. They don't wear Nike running shoes because they're going to help them run faster or further or more comfortably.

People who run in Nike shoes might look cool, but they are also the ones I see limping into running stores looking for a solution to their aches and pains.

The reason I bought my Nike Triaxx sports watch was because it looked cool and unique. When I run with a purpose, I switch to my Timex Ironman watch, or my Polar heart rate monitor. The only reason I swim in Nike briefs instead of Speedo is because the Nike swim brief looks better. It has nothing to do with performance. I never wear my Nike running vest to run. That's what my Pearl Izumi vest is for. The Nike vest is what I wear before and after I run because it looks cooler - and because I don't want to ruin it by drenching it in sweat every day.

The truth is that Nike is the Tommy Hilfiger of the sportswear world. The locker room's Kenneth Cole. The stadium's DKNY. Nike is all about blending sports with style. It's about making jocks look trendy, and the trendy look sporty.

What Nike really is, is a sports couture house.

Nike, like DKNY, Ralph Lauren, Kenneth Cole and Brooks Brothers, provides us with clothes and accessories that help us define an image. But, to be fair, the same could be said of Adidas, Puma and Reebok.

What makes Nike different from anyone else in that regard is the focus of its advertising. Every year, Nike produces at least one ad that transcends image and takes us to a whole different place: Feeling.

Five seconds into the spot, no matter what you happen to be doing, you find yourself looking up at the TV. Fifteen seconds into it, your competitive juices are flowing. By the time it ends, you're ready to head out the door and set a new personal best. It doesn't matter if your sport is baseball, running, surfing or bull riding. The message is this: You're an athlete. You're a champion. Now go out there and unleash your superpowers.

Just do it.

Nike goes beyond making sports cool and glamorous and sexy. Nike actually makes us feel that we are part of a community. A brotherhood/sisterhood. We're athletes. Nike channels that need, that basic component of the human psyche to belong and to feel that we can do something meaningful and courageous and brave and extraordinary. Nike, in becoming synonymous with sport, becomes the vehicle through which we experience our own athleticism.

In short, whether or not we run to the store to buy Nike products, Nike starts fires in our souls. How many brands can claim to do that?

When you buy a Nike product, you are buying into that promise. That image. That culture. When you wear the Nike swoosh, you are making a statement: I'm an athlete. I'm one of them. I'm one of you. You're also spreading the gospel of sport.

The Nike brand completely transcends its products by making them seem like mere tools of the trade. Athletic accessories. Parts and components with which to customize your own athletic experience.

Your own athletic journey.

Obviously, I love all of Nike's designs. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of Nike's products. Nike's fabricks rock. I was very impressed with what Nike's Mike Parker had to say about innovation and the creative structure inside his company. (Thanks to fellow Corante contributor John Winsor for the interview.) Nike's relentless pursuit of new technologies is awe-inspiring. I love Nike's ads. I love Nike's websites. Yeah, I'm a big fan.

But there's a price you pay for focusing on designing cool, inspiring products rather than actually making better products: You end up appealing only to beginner and very light usage athletes.

The rest of us, the millions of runners, cyclists, swimmers, hikers, skiers, skaters, mountain bikers and triathletes, we aren't really buying Nike's stuff anymore. We can't run or ride or trek in their shoes. We know their clothes won't last if we wash them every day. Their optics aren't the best. All in all, Nike just isn't making products for us anymore, and it's too bad... because we all wish they would.

We'd all buy Nike stuff in a heartbeat if we knew it were designed with performance in mind. You know... like in the good old days.

Nothing's stopping you, Nike. You have the talent, you have the production capabilities, you have the distribution outlets, you have a captive market, and you still have the authenticity of your brand. So... please, please, please get out there and build us a real running shoe. Just do it.

And if you've forgotten how, I can dig up a few hundred thousand folks who'll be more than happy to help. :)

Call me crazy, but whether Nike is still Nike twenty years from now may very well depend on whether or not you start working for them again.

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