A Nike marketing campaign is instantly recognisable. It’s not just because of the iconic tick and the “Just do it” slogan, it’s because a Nike ad never fails to inspire, motivate and move.
But what is it that makes Nike’s creative work so special? By deconstructing countless Nike marketing campaigns, we’ll explore the ingredients that distinguish them… And once we’ve uncovered Nike’s ‘secret sauce’, you can put the knowledge to use in your own campaigns.
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We’ve poured over Nike’s recent marketing campaigns from around the globe to identify five key ingredients…
Ingredient of a Nike marketing campaign #1: real people, real stories
Nike marketing campaigns trade heavily on authenticity. They usually feature real athletes rather than actors and set out to tell their stories in a way that inspires other ordinary people to find success through sports.
What really makes these ads stand out, though, is that they go beyond the sports themselves. They show the impact that sports have on the local community, how they bring people together and, ultimately, help change the status quo.
A great example of this is the “Heroes” campaign, produced by the Amsterdam division of Nike’s advertising agency Wieden & Kennedy. The three-minute film focuses on a new generation of German athletes who – as individuals and in their teams – work hard to advance society.
Those featured include Zeina Nassar, the boxer who changed the rules of boxing so that she and others could wear a hijab in the ring, and the Nazari sisters, who walked to Germany from Afghanistan to become the future of German skateboarding.
The film is set to the song “Heroes” by David Bowie, but performed in German by the athletes starring in the ad. Wieden & Kennedy says: “While many people see athletes winning and competing, Nike sees heroes, who help to advance, enrich and inspire society. We made a campaign to celebrate these heroes.”
Ingredient of a Nike marketing campaign #2: pure emotion
Sometimes things are just too overwhelming. At times like these, glossy visuals can seem inappropriate and distracting, which is why Nike has completely pared back their approach for two recent campaigns with pure emotion at their heart.
The first pays tribute to late basketball star Kobe Bryant and was launched on the day of his memorial service. “Mamba forever” gets its name from Bryant’s nickname, “Black Mamba” and features simple white text against a black backdrop.
The ad highlights Bryant’s incredible achievements by pairing the word “forever” with a succession of other words, while audio clips spanning his life play in the background. The film ends with the sound of a crowd repeatedly cheering “Kobe” and the words “Mamba forever”.
Nike replicated this impactful format after the killing of George Floyd in the US and the anti-racism protests that followed. Putting a twist on the brand’s famous slogan, the film “Don’t do it” urges people to acknowledge and take a stand against racism.
“For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us,” says the text. The message is hard-hitting and perfectly illustrates Nike’s commitment to being a brand with purpose.
Ingredient of a Nike marketing campaign #3: sporting legends
Nike often teams up with sporting legends for brand partnerships but, unlike other brands that use celebrity endorsements, Nike turns the spotlight away from their products. Instead, Nike always seeks to tell us something meaningful about the featured star.
Take, for example, the recent campaign “Love your dream until it loves you back,” created to promote Kylian Mbappé’s first Nike collection. The ad shows the PSG forward’s unstoppable love for football through the years, including real footage of when he was a boy playing on the pitches of Bondy (a suburb of Paris).
“Kylian has come so far and achieved so much that it’s easy to forget he’s still the same kid he always was – a kid who just wants to play football,” says ad agency Wieden & Kennedy. The enduring message of the ad is that passion can make dreams reality (as opposed to achieving sporting glory through buying Nike trainers).
In the same vein, Nike aims to show what is possible when you dare to dream big with its “The voice of belief” campaign featuring tennis giant Serena Williams. By blending archival and match footage with a voiceover by Serena’s father and first coach, Richard Williams, the spot highlights Serena’s dream-come-true of winning the major.
What’s clear is that when Nike teams up with a sporting legend, they do so to inspire people, not just to sell sportswear – they’re not throwing a famous person into the mix to increase views. These peoples’ stories are ones of huge determination. They allow us to understand the importance of sporting victories and, crucially, feel the emotion.
Ingredient of a Nike marketing campaign #4: championing the underdog
Nike believes that everyone should have access to sports and has been championing equality for years. This has seen the brand advocate for underrepresented groups in sports, like women, people with disabilities, BAME and LGBTQ groups, through their creative work.
A recent example is “Further than ever,” created to celebrate Women’s History Month. The ad from Wieden & Kennedy Shanghai aims to challenge societal beliefs that Chinese women should not be overly ambitious.
The spot includes tennis champion Li Na, five-star boxing champion Cai Zong Ju, professional high jumper Cecilia Yeung and champion rowers Kung Fu Cha Cha.
“Chinese Women have long been encouraged to be strong, successful, independent and ambitious. However, it has always been followed by an unspoken, “within reason.” The goal of this campaign was to take on that idea and show that anything is possible while highlighting local Chinese women who are pushing the boundaries and inspiring their community.”
Meanwhile, the Nike marketing campaign “Equality” has the simple premise: “The ball should bounce the same for everyone.” The campaign features a variety of American athletes and is set to “A Change Is Gonna Come” performed by Alicia Keys – the first time the famed civil rights song has been used in advertising.
Says Wieden & Kennedy Portland: “The campaign encouraged people to take the fairness and respect they see on the court or playing field and extend it off the field. It wasn’t created to promote a product, but because Nike and its athletes wanted to address the truth of this moment in America.”
Ingredient of a Nike marketing campaign #5: fusing sports and culture
There’s something else about Nike’s advertising campaigns that we can’t fail to mention. They’re just cool. It might seem like an elusive quality to capture, but Nike achieves it by fusing sport with culture, collaborating with of-the-moment musicians, artists and creatives.
Through doing this, Nike – a sportswear brand – has been able to create music videos that have set the internet on fire – like “Da Da Ding,” Delhi’s very first Just do it campaign, which clocked up three million views. The music video, which features national hockey player Rani Rampal and surfer Ishita Malaviya, is set to a track created especially for Nike by French DJ Surkin.
Nike’s “Unlimited together” – a national anthem for basketball – has also been viewed millions of times, and drove half of all Nike’s Facebook user engagement during the 2016 Olympics. The campaign is the result of a collaboration between Nike and hip-hop star Chance the Rapper.
Further fusing art and sport, Nike hired celebrated music photographer Danny Clinch to shoot the official USA Olympic Basketball team photo. He photographed both the men’s and women’s teams together for the very first time.
Just do it like Nike
Nike might be one of the biggest brands in the world – with mega advertising budgets – but their ads are built around concepts that are accessible to us all. By incorporating the elements of a Nike marketing campaign – like authenticity, storytelling and emotion – into your campaign planning, your creative work can be just as memorable.
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Bel has a background in newspaper and magazine journalism but loves to geek-out with Attest consumer data to write in-depth reports. Inherently nosy, she's endlessly excited to pose questions to Attest's audience of 125 million global consumers. She also likes cake.